News / Asia

Jailed Activists Mostly Left Out of Burma's Latest Prisoner Amnesty

Danielle Bernstein

Burma's President Thein Sein has won international praise for recent political reforms and engagement with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But the country's traditional prisoner amnesty this week was a disappointment for those hoping for the release of all jailed activists and political dissidents.

Crowds gathered outside Burma's Insein prison this week to await
inmates who gained release after their sentences were commuted. Few of the estimated 1,500 political prisoners were among them.

Last October, authorities released some 200 prisoners of conscience. Labor Activist Su Su Nway was among them. She has returned to the same work that got her arrested in the first place.

"What I am doing is working to eliminate forced labor," she said.  "Before I was sent to jail, that is what I was doing, too. I'm doing that again, and also working against farmland seizures."

Despite the government's opening that encourages activists like Su Su Nway, opposition leaders in Burma say they do not expect quick reforms and favor a pragmatic approach for dealing with the government.

"We want to all [political prisoners to] be free, but we don't expect all because the government make[s] changes in every respect - slowly, slowly, slowly so we don't want to expect all [will be] free," the activist said.

The newly formed National Human Rights Commission for the first time was recently allowed to inspect Insein Prison where many political prisoners are held.

Commission Chairmain Win Mra says even though the group is independent, it must work within the law and does not directly contradict the government's position that there are no political prisoners in Burma.

"There is a lot of emphasis being put on what is termed as 'prisoners of conscience', but the government says there are no prisoners of conscience. The commission of human rights addresses all prisoners who can contribute towards the democratization process," said Win Mra.

Following this week's prisoner release, pro-democratic parties are now looking forward to April by-elections as another small step toward political reform.

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