Prominent Dissidents Freed from Burmese Jails in Wide-Ranging Amnesty

Posted January 13th, 2012 at 3:50 am (UTC-5)
Leave a comment

Burma on Friday freed a number of prominent political prisoners, in what many say could be the country's most significant prisoner release in decades.

Journalists, religious leaders, and a former prime minister were among the anticipated 651 prisoners that began trickling out of prisons across Burma on Friday.

Among those to be released was democracy activist Min Ko Naing – a key student leader of the failed 1988 uprising. Also being freed were Shin Gambira, a well-known Buddhist monk who led street protests in 2007, and Shan ethnic minority leader Khun Htun Oo, who was serving 93-year sentence on charges of treason. Former prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt was freed from house arrest.

Burmese state media said the detainees were being freed under an amnesty ordered by President Thein Sein in order to foster national reconciliation. It is the latest move toward political reform by the country's military-backed government, which took power in March after decades of military rule.

Burmese researcher David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch tells VOA that the amnesty represents a significant step on Burma's path towards democracy.

“You're talking about quite a comprehensive list of prominent political activists, journalists, labor activists, Buddhist monks and former members of the government. So this is really quite a significant release.”

Mathieson said he hopes those released will be able to play a part in the national political process ahead of highly-anticipated by-elections scheduled for April 1.

“We're actually entering a very interesting phase in modern Burmese politics, and everyone released today certainly has a very prominent role to play in that.”

The amnesty comes a day after the Burmese government signed a cease-fire deal with the ethnic Karen rebel group. It marked the first declared break in fighting between the government and the rebel force since just after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948.

Burma hopes the amnesty and the peace deal will help improve relations with the international community. The United States and European Union have repeatedly called for Burma's nominally civilian government to free all of its political prisoners. After Friday's release, it is unclear how many prisoners of conscience remain in Burmese jails.

Meanwhile, a leading congressional voice behind U.S. sanctions on Burma, Senator Mitch McConnell, says he will begin a three-day visit to the country on Sunday to assess political reforms. He plans to meet pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and government officials in his first ever trip to Burma.

Another U.S. congressman, Representative Joe Crowley, is currently in Burma to encourage the government's reform efforts.

After landmark visit to Burma in November, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Washington would consider lifting its sanctions against Burma's new government if it continues reforms.