Myanmar says 300 political prisoners freed


Myanmar said Saturday it freed more than 300 political prisoners in its most significant amnesty yet, a move which prompted the United States to pledge it would restore full diplomatic ties.
Friday’s releases, which included a number of prominent dissidents, were hailed by Western powers that have long demanded the freeing of political detainees before they will consider lifting sanctions on the isolated nation.
US President Barack Obama said the amnesty was a “substantial step” towards democracy in a country ruled for decades by the military, while the party led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi called it a “positive sign”.
Myanmar said Friday about 650 inmates were included in the mass pardon, but it had not been clear how many were political prisoners.
Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko said Saturday that 302 of those released were on a list of political detainees compiled by a political group, thought to be Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
But he insisted that none of those had been jailed for political reasons.
“We didn’t take action against anyone because of politics or beliefs,” he told reporters.
“This release was not according to the demand of any person or any organisation. We released them according to the true benevolence of the government.”
It is not clear how many more political prisoners are still behind bars, but Ko Ko said 128 people remained on the list submitted by the unnamed political group.
These prisoners could not be released for security reasons because they had committed serious crimes, he said.
Htay Kywe, one of the most prominent dissidents freed, told AFP as he arrived at Yangon airport after leaving a prison in western Rakhine state: “We will work with momentum. We will continue working for democracy.”
About 200 political detainees were let out in October, and estimates of the number left in prison after that amnesty ranged from 500 to more than 1,500.
The Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said that 272 political prisoners were released on Friday, while more than 1,000 remained locked up.
“We consider that leaving the remaining political prisoners behind bars is a way of torture,” a statement from the group said.
Those freed included leading pro-democracy dissidents who were at the forefront of a failed 1988 uprising in which thousands died and participants in 2007’s “Saffron Revolution” protests.
Another 100 of those released were former members of the intelligence service, according to minister Ko Ko.
Among them was Khin Nyunt, a former prime minister and intelligence chief who was ousted in 2004 in a power struggle and placed under house arrest.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington would begin the process of exchanging ambassadors with Myanmar and pledged to take further steps to boost relations.
The US has been represented by a lower-ranking diplomat, a charge d’affaires, since it withdrew its ambassador in 1990 in protest after military rulers refused to accept the results of elections won by Suu Kyi’s party.
The nominally civilian government that came to power last year in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has surprised even sceptics with a series of reformist moves.
It froze work on an unpopular dam supported by powerful neighbour China last year and on Thursday signed a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic Karen group involved in one of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts.
The country recently announced plans to hold by-elections on April 1 and Suu Kyi — released from years of house arrest in November 2010 — plans to stand for a seat in parliament in a constituency near the main city Yangon.
The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner said earlier this week that her country was “on the verge of a breakthrough to democracy”.
The state-controlled New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the latest amnesty aimed to ensure stability, peace and national reconciliation, calling for “all-out efforts into the emergence of a democratic nation”.