Burma has released nearly 200 political prisoners as part of a general amnesty, including a few prominent activists. Rights groups have welcomed their release but are urging that all political prisoners be set free. They are also stressing the real test of the government's claims to reform will be in how they are treated after their release.
Authorities in Burma began releasing prisoners Wednesday morning as part of an amnesty for over 6,000 inmates.
William Steinberg, a noted expert on Burma and Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies and the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington, says this is but one indication of an attempted start of change in the new government. He spoke with VOA's Ira Mellman.
Burmese comedian and dissident Thura, known by his stage name Zarganar, was among those set free. He spoke after his release to VOA's Burmese service, comparing authorities in Burma to Somali pirates.
He says he feels as if he was captured and held hostage by Somalia pirates. He says he is not happy to be released today and feels very sad because there are several prisoners of conscience who still remain in prison. He urges Burma’s politicians to do more than just talk, and take real actions. He says promises made by the government need to be implemented if they are to rebuild the nation.
Zarganar was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 59 years in prison for criticizing the military government’s slow response to Cyclone Nargis.
The deadly storm left 138,000 people dead or missing when it struck the Irrawaddy delta and hundreds of thousands homeless. Despite the emergency, authorities delayed acceptance of international help, which critics say added to the death toll.
Hnin Pwin Wai, known as Phyo Phyo Aung, says she was one of six political prisoners released Wednesday from Moulmein prison in southern Burma. She was arrested in 2008, sentenced to four years, and due to be released anyway. She spoke by phone with VOA's Burmese service.
She says of those released, two were charged with associating with an illegal organization and four of them were arrested for other political activities. She says there are still two female political prisoners left in the prison and fifteen male ones. All of them, she says, are serving time for associating with a banned organization.
Rights groups on Wednesday welcomed the release of political prisoners while noting they should not have been imprisoned in the first place.
"It's early, too early, to say conclusively whether or not this will be the sum total of those released or whether or not the figure will grow beyond the double digits and into the triple digits," said Benjamin Zawacki of Amnesty International in Bangkok. "But, certainly we had, I think many of us had very reasonably high expectations for today's release, that it would be quite substantial in terms of the number of political prisoners and thus far we're not seeing that.
Zawacki says it is not yet clear whether political prisoners who are set free will be allowed to resume their activism. Burma’s government refuses to acknowledge any political prisoners, calling them criminals.
Zawacki points out that Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was on several occasions released from her nearly two decades of house arrest, but her movements were restricted and she was later locked up.
"Her situation is very emblematic of many others whereby they are sometimes detained and then released, resume their political activity, and then only to be detained once again," said Zawacki. "So, we would urge Myanmar authorities to make sure this release is genuine."
Burma’s President Thein Sein issued the amnesty Tuesday saying prisoners were being freed for good behavior.
But there were no details on who would be released or whether Burma’s estimated 2,000 political prisoners would be included.
Earlier reports indicated at least some dissidents would be among those set free.
Burma has issued amnesties in the past that included political prisoners only to continue arresting and sentencing dissidents who challenge authorities.
Nonetheless, in recent weeks authorities have taken steps indicating at least some in government may be interested in reform.
Authorities relaxed media censorship, passed a law allowing labor unions, and President Thein Sein held direct talks with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Rights groups question whether Burma’s newly elected government is simply trying to give the appearance of reform to get economic sanctions against it lifted.
Burma is also bidding to host the 2014 meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It was last scheduled to hold the rotating chair in 2005 but ASEAN was pressured to skip Burma due to its poor human rights record.