Myanmar, also known as Burma, says President Thein Sein has pardoned more than 3,000 prisoners, including Rohingya political prisoners U Kyaw Hla Aung, U Kyaw Min and his son Mg Hla Nu from Sittwe prison.
The latest amnesty announced Tuesday by the Ministry of Information in Yangon comes as the country’s reformist government prepares for next month's meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders in Myanmar.
Information minister and presidential spokesman U Ye Htut said President Thein Sein ordered the mass release of prisoners before an auspicious full moon festival in the predominately Buddhist country.
“The president issued a pardon for over 3,073," said Ye Htut. "And according to our information there are 3,015 Myanmar citizens and 58 foreigners. The president made this pardon based on national reconciliation and humanitarian grounds.”
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Hla Aung, Rohingya political prisoner, told VOA he was sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison and appealed, but the universal pardon came through first.
The order releases anyone with at least one year of time served and less than six months left of their sentence.
Hla Aung says he was required to sign an agreement that if he violates the law again, he can be re-arrested and forced to serve the balance of his commuted sentence. He also says he is "now back in Thet Ker Refugee camp with his family,” but describes himself as “not well” at 74 years of age.
Hla Aung was detained for 14 months before being sentenced on Sept 26.
The Myanmar government says 58 foreign nationals are among the pardoned, but it has not given their nationalities. All it has said is that the pardoned prisoners were being freed for the sake of "peace and stability," the "rule of law" and on "humanitarian grounds."
According to former political prisoner Bo Kyi, founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, who spoke with VOA before the latest government announcements regarding the mass amnesty, it appeared only one of the more than 70 civilians still imprisoned for political offenses, Mar La, was slated for release.
Bo Kyi also noted that 15 of those being released are ordinary elderly prisoners and some former military intelligence officers.
Most notable among those freed is Brigadier General Thein Swe, who was sentenced to 152 years in prison following the 2004 ouster of an ex-intelligence chief.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, was under harsh military rule from 1962 through 2011.
Since then, the army has been leading a transition to civilian democracy with a general election promised for late next year.
The president, who is a former general and took power in 2011, has released more than 1,000 political prisoners and had pledged to release all of them by last year.
Amnesty International response
Rights group Amnesty International criticized Myanmar for still holding political prisoners, despite the pledge by the country's leader.
"The President's failure to follow through on his promise to release all prisoners of conscience by the end of 2013 is extremely disappointing," said Olof Blomqvist, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific press officer.
"The Myanmar authorities have, since the transition started, consistently spun the line that the country has turned a corner on human rights — but the ground reality is very different," he said. "The authorities continue to rely on draconian laws to silence and imprison those peacefully expressing their opinions. As long as these laws are in place, peaceful activists will continue to be locked up, and any amnesties will in the long run not have much effect."
VOA Burmese service also contributed to this report from Yangon. Some information for this report comes from AP, AFP and Reuters.