Myanmar: 32 political prisoners released, government says military has been key to reforms

Updated On: Jan 04, 2012

Prisoner amnesty

Myanmar's government released at least 32 prisoners on Tuesday, a day after the government announced widespread reductions in prisoner sentences as part of an annual amnesty to mark the country's independence.

Despite the amnesties, the opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) and human rights activists expressed disappointment at their limited scale, with no amnesty being granted to prominent dissidents who are serving long term sentences.

Political prisoners remain a key point of contention between Western countries and the former military regime, despite the country's recent spate of reforms.

Coming a day after Western criticism, particularly from the West, that its cutting of prisoner terms was insufficient, it is unknown whether the 32 prisoner release was intended as a response, or if it had been planned previously.

Report: Burma releases 32 political prisoners in amnesty (BBC News, 3 January 2011) 
Report: Myanmar cuts sentences for independence day (CNN, 4 January 2011)

Army praised

Meanwhile, Myanmar's president Thein Sein, formerly a general of the military regime, has praised the country's military, saying that it has been key to recent political reform gestures.

"It was the Tatmadaw that directed the nation towards building a peaceful, modern and developed democratic one," he said in a message read by Vice President Sai Mauk Kham to mark independence celebrations, and added that it was the army that "took step-by-step measures for writing a constitution in order to practise multi-party democracy."

In the past, independence day celebrations have been used to been used by the ruling generals to warn of dangers posed by other nations and to rail against "evil colonialism". This time, although the role of the army was emphasised, Mr Shwe's tone was more reformist."Myanmar is marching towards a new modern, developed nation enlisting the strength of human resources like intellectuals," he acknowledged, in his statement.

An end to authoritarianism?

Most significant perhaps, was a change in tone in state media, which has traditionally been a mouth piece for the government. The New Light of Myanmar, known for its dogged support of the country’s former military regime, referred to the junta as "authoritarian" when it ran Mr Shwe's statement in full on Tuesday.

The outlet also published a comment piece insisting the new leaders would "never turn back" from reforms, stating that "the Myanmar government can daringly disclose that there is no way to deviate from its democratic transition."

Media restrictions have been lifted recently as a part of recent reforms, with alternative media sources reporting openly on democracy champion and former political prisoner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but this is the first major indication from state media that reforms look set to continue.

Report: Myanmar president reaffirms army role (AFP, 4 January 2011)
Report: Burma says authoritarian era ‘finished’ (Democratic Voice of Burma, 4 January 2011)

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