Myanmar frees 300 political prisoners in amnesty

Updated On: Oct 13, 2011

Myanmar's government has freed about 300 political prisoners as part of a general amnesty.

A popular comedian and dissident, Zarganar, was among the first to be freed. He was arrested in 2008 after publicly criticising the military government of the time for its response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people.

Also freed was Sai Say Htan, a leader of the Shan State Army. The ethnic rebel group fought successive military regimes that ruled following a 1962 coup. He was sentenced to 104 years in prison in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new Constitution.

Some monks and a journalist were also released.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the government's decision. “As I have often said, the independence of everybody is priceless,” she said to supporters in Yangon, “I’m really thankful for the release of political prisoners.”

But she also urged the government to do more. "The freedom of each individual is invaluable but I wish that all political prisoners would be released," she added.

Earlier this week, Myanmar state media said over 6,300 prisoners would be released under the amnesty, but it was not clear at the time whether this would include political prisoners. The release of some political prisoners is being hailed as a good sign, but activists say most of Myanmar's 2000 political prisoners remain in custody.

Since the new civilian government took power following last year's elections, there have been signs of reform in Myanmar under President Thein Sein. Critics claim the civilian government is still controlled by the military, but others are cautiously optimistic.  

Report: Burma frees dozens of political prisoners [BBC News, 12 Oct 2011]

Report: Myanmar frees 300 dissidents [TODAY, 13 Oct 2011]

Report: Myanmar Begins to Release Some of Its Political Prisoners [New York Times, 12 Oct 2011]

In the United States, officials have welcomed Myanmar's decision to release some political prisoners as the latest encouraging glimmer of new openness in the country.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was encouraged by "promising signals" of reform but that it was too early to announce steps Washington might take in response.

"This initial release of political prisoners in Burma is to be welcomed, but questions remain as to whether these individuals will remain free and whether the scores of other political prisoners in the country will be also be liberated," said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democratic Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said "there are a number of things that have been happening in Myanmar that I would say open up some cautious hopes that maybe there's a transition taking place."

Mr. Kerry cited Myanmar's recent decision to suspend construction of a China-backed dam project in response to public outcry as well as the government's attempts to open dialogue with pro-democracy groups and broaden political participation.

"So there are some rumblings that are actually opening some thoughts about maybe there's some new thinking, and we'll see. It has to be tested carefully and slowly," Mr. Kerry said.

The US, Europe and Australia have maintained that the freeing of political prisoners is essential condition to lifting sanctions against Myanmar. According to reports, Myanmar officials have admitted privately that they do not expect all of the country's political detainees to be freed. But a failure to release a substantial number could be considered an inadequate gesture by the US and other governments.

Earlier this week, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said the US would "match their steps with comparable steps", which could include easing restrictions on financial transactions and international aid to Myanmar.

Report: Key Burma Political Prisoners Kept in Jail [TIME/AP, 12 Oct 2011]

Report: Top US senators welcome Myanmar prisoner release [AFP, 12 Oct 2011]

But human rights groups have urged some caution. According to Benjamin Zawacki of Amnesty International in Bangkok, it is not yet clear whether political prisoners who are set free will be allowed to resume their activism.

Pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was on several occasions released from her nearly two decades of house arrest, but her movements were restricted and she was later locked up.

"Her situation is very emblematic of many others whereby they are sometimes detained and then released, resume their political activity, and then only to be detained once again," said Zawacki. "So, we would urge Myanmar authorities to make sure this release is genuine."

Report: Burma Releases Dozens of Political Prisoners [VOA News, 13 Oct 2011]

Malaysian Actress Michelle Yeoh, who plays Ms. Suu Kyi in an upcoming movie about her life, also welcomed the freeing of political prisoners.

"It shows the new government of Burma is starting out on the right path," Yeoh told a news conference at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.

Yeoh is in Busan to promote "The Lady", a biopic about Ms. Suu Kyi directed by French filmmaker Luc Besson.

When told that Zarganar and others had been released, Besson said it was the "best news" he had heard all day.

According to reports, "The Lady" has been screening to packed theatres in Busan, and it may see general release from next month onwards. Ms. Suu Kyi has apparently not yet seen the finished film.

Report: Michelle Yeoh, Luc Besson laud Myanmar releases [AFP, 12 Oct 2011]

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