Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Burma frees high-profile dissidents in amnesty

Several high-profile dissidents have been set free in Burma in the latest in a series of prisoner amnesties.

Those freed included Min Ko Naing, who was one of the leaders of a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

Former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was detained in a purge in 2004, has also been freed from house arrest.

State TV had announced that 651 prisoners would be freed under a new presidential pardon, but did not say how many would be political prisoners.

Burma has faced calls from the international community to free more dissidents.

The BBC's South East Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey says the names of those released read like a who's who of Burma's most prominent political detainees.

Given the stature of those set free, this could be the most significant breakthrough yet in Burma's moves towards reform, she says.

But some Burmese exiles and campaign groups say the real test will be how much freedom recently released prisoners will have to continue their political activities, our correspondent adds.

Some in the Burmese government are pushing these reforms hard - but it is well known that there are others wary of it, and the powerful military is also lurking in the background.

This is still the beginning of the process, but the momentum is building.

Among the key demands of Western nations which have imposed sanctions on Burma - but also, crucially, from the opposition movement and pro-democracy activists within the country - are the freeing of all political prisoners; moves towards peace with the many ethnic groups, and including them in the political process; and holding free and fair elections, the latest of which are due on 1 April - a series of by-elections.

It does look as if the momentum is building again, that the leadership is pushing this process forward once more.

Min Ko Naing was considered by many to be the most high-profile political dissident still behind bars.

A crowd greeted him as he emerged from prison in Thayet, 545km (345 miles) north of Rangoon, the Associated Press reported.

Another veteran member of Burma's 88 Generation Students, Nilar Thein, confirmed to the BBC that she had been freed from Tharya Wadi prison.

The activist served eight years in prison after the 1988 demonstrations and was jailed again in 2008 for 65 years for illegally using electronic media.

"I'm healthy and happy to be released and happy to see my baby," she told the BBC, referring to her daughter, born the year before her imprisonment. "I was released today along with nine other political prisoners in Tharya Wadi prison but there are still 25 more left inside," she said.

Her husband, Kyaw Min Yu, known as Ko Jimmy, has also been freed, as well as Htay Kywe, a student activist jailed in 2007 for 65 years.

U Khun Tun Oo, the most senior political representative of the Shan, the largest of Burma's ethnic minorities, has also been freed.

The party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said the move was a "positive sign".

"We welcome the release. Some [dissidents] are on their way home already," AFP news agency quoted a spokesman as saying.

Five of those released were journalists from the exiled broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

One of them, Sithu Zeya, said he was wary of the conditions placed on his release.

"I have been released with a rope around my neck," he said, pointing out that the charges against him had not been lifted.

He said he wanted to resume his work as a journalist but was afraid the government would not allow it.

Burma Campaign UK said the release was "undoubtedly a major step", but urged the international community not to forget those political prisoners left behind in Burma's jails.

"The way in which political prisoners are being released raises concerns that rather than releasing political prisoners because it is the right thing to do, they are being treated as bargaining chips in a tit-for-tat process in getting sanctions lifted and gaining international legitimacy," it said in a statement.

"Some of those released today have been arrested and released on several occasions to try to avoid international pressure."

Burma's new government has freed a number of political prisoners since embarking on a process of reform.

This is a positive trend. Burma would like to prove to the world that it is committed to reforms.

I have been talking to key decision makers in both Burma and the US about the possibilities of sanctions being lifted. If Burma continues with this pace, it is very possible that sanctions may be lifted within two years, in time for Burma taking over the Asean chair in 2014, if not before that.

The international community will want more and I think we will see more. A key thing to look at is the future relationship between the military and the government. President Thein Sein will have to find a balance - not too fast, too soon, or too slow, too little.

The military-backed civilian government came to power in November 2010, after the country's first elections in 20 years. Before that Burma was governed by a military junta.

It has freed Aung San Suu Kyi and entered into dialogue with her and her National League for Democracy party. Ms Suu Kyi is now expected to stand for parliament in a by-election in April.

Western nations have welcomed the reform process but called on the government to release political prisoners and resolve ethnic conflicts in border regions before sanctions can be eased.

No official tally of the number of political prisoners is available but prior to Friday's releases opposition groups estimated that between 600 and 1,000 remained in custody.

Hopes of a significant release were raised on Thursday when the announcement said detainees would be freed so they could help in the task of nation-building.

The releases come a day after the government signed a landmark ceasefire with a rebel group.

The ceasefire was agreed at talks with the Karen National Union (KNU) in Hpa-an, capital of eastern Karen state. The Karen have fought for greater autonomy for more than 60 years.—BBC

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