Why Burma's prisoner release may be more than a token gesture

Observers of Burma (Myanmar) say that political prisoners may be among those included in the Burmese government's announcement of amnesty for more than 6,300 people.

By , Staff writer

• A roundup of global reports

The Burmese government today announced it would release more than 6,300 prisoners, a major development for Burma (Myanmar), which ranks among the world's most repressive states.

After decades of military rule, the country formally transitioned to a civilian government in March, but many observers were skeptical of liberalization. The prisoner release, scheduled to begin tomorrow, may be the most important signal out of the government yet. But it's unclear whether the country's roughly 2,000 political prisoners will be part of that group.

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Three state newspapers carried a letter calling for a political amnesty. Because the newspapers typically align with government opinion, the fact that they carried the letter is a strong indication that political prisoners – ranging from student leaders to military officers – will be among the 6,359 soon-to-be released, Associated Press reports.

The US, which has sanctioned Burma, "has been encouraged by its liberalizing trend since the civilian administration took power," the highest-ranking US diplomat for Asia said Monday, according to AP.

However, lifting sanctions will not even be considered by the US, Europe, or Australia until political prisoners are released, Reuters reports.

While amnesties are "fairly common," one in May 2011 for some 14,000 prisoners only included 47 jailed on political grounds and was criticized.

In an open letter published on Tuesday, Win Mra, chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, wrote that prisoners who did not pose "a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility" should be released.

The open letter marks a significant shift in the former British colony … where authorities have long refused to recognize the existence of political prisoners, usually dismissing such detainees as common criminals.

Burma's recent concessions – last week it shelved a $3.6 billion dam project led by China that many Burmese oppose – were partially spurred by a need for assistance from the World Bank and other international institutions that cut ties years ago because of human rights abuses. The country's economy is in shambles as a result of international sanctions and obstacles to foreign investment, according to Reuters.

It is also under pressure from the rest of Southeast Asia to take steps to lessen its isolation because the region is moving toward an economic union similar to the European Union.

The amnesty, dam decision, and a number of other more minor liberalization actions – such as allowing a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's main opposition leader, to appear in government-censored publications – together seem like a signal that reform is more than just surface-level this time.

Taken together, the recent reforms “have gone too far to be just window dressing,” said Steven Marshall, the International Labor Organization’s liaison officer in Rangoon. “The political environment now is very different than what it was before.”

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