In surprise amnesty, Myanmar releases high-profile political prisoners

Myanmar freed hundreds of political prisoners Friday in an amnesty that could pressure the West to lift sanctions as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up.

James YeAungThu/Reuters
Myanmar's former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was once the powerful chief of military intelligence (MI), speaks after his release from house arrest in Yangon on Friday. Hundreds of prisoners began to walk free from jails around Myanmar on Friday in an amnesty, as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up after half a century of authoritarian rule.
Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Blogger Nay Phone Latt talks to reporters as his mother and his brother stand beside him after his release, in front of Pa-an prison, in Pa-an, Myanmar, Friday.

Myanmar's government today freed hundreds of political prisoners in a landmark release that could see Western sanctions on the former military dictatorship relaxed.

The surprise amnesty, the second significant prisoner release since the current military-backed government was formed and new reforms implemented, comes amid growing rivalry between the US and China in Asia. Myanmar (Burma) has long been an economically and politically tied to China, but some see its rulers as chafing under Beijing's influence, while the US is trying to recover lost ground in the region.

Singaporean academic Simon Tay says that Myanmar's reforms, though promising, could be more about forming better relations with the West, which has long called on Myanmar's rulers to bring about change, than about real democratic progress.

The timing and magnitude of today's mass release came as a surprise to many analysts, including Aung Naing Oo, a former student protester from Myanmar who is now deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute in Thailand. “The military moves slowly, cautiously,” he says explaining why the release came after some recent smaller amnesties that many found disappointing.

Among those freed today were student leaders of a 1988 uprising against military rule, monks who fronted the 2007 Saffron protests, journalists, and bloggers, as well as a former military junta Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and some former intelligence officials and military insiders who were jailed in a 2004 purge orchestrated by then-dictator Than Shwe.

The head of the EU delegation to Myanmar and Thailand, David Lipman, said today in Bangkok that the developments in Myanmar during the past 24 hours were “quite remarkable,” adding that EU governments would discuss Myanamar at an upcoming meeting in Brussels

Freed prisoners speak

One of those freed today was Ko Ko Gyi, a former student leader who spent a total of 17 years in jail over three jail-terms. Speaking to the Monitor via a crackly telephone line from Yangon, said that “we are grateful for your support and efforts,” referring to countries and organizations that lobbied for the release.

He added that he wants to improve Myanmar's reforming political system. He would not say whether he would seek to run in upcoming by-elections set for April 1.  Ko Mya Aye, another dissident freed today, said by telephone from Myanmar that he plans to campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi when the opposition leader competes in the elections. "I absolutely trust her," he said.

While the newly released prisoners look ahead, it remains unclear whether today's release covers all Myanmar's political prisoners. At time of writing, National League for Democracy spokesman Ohn Kyaing said by telephone from Yangon that his party was “active all across the country trying to verify the numbers of those released.”

“We have so far counted 232 political prisoners,” he said, speaking at 6:30 p.m. Yangon time. The count is expected to increase, as information comes in from the country lacking in modern telecommunications and with prison scattered in remote areas. Yangon-based newspaper Eleven News quoting Myanmar officials who said that 651 prisoners in total were released, including what they termed 591 “prisoners of conscience.” The remainder is believed to include Khin Nyunt's former spies. 

The 591 figure is the same number that NLD had said was the number of detained dissidents, suggesting that the opposition party had some influence on government moves. Ohn Kyaing said the party, headed by Myanmar's most prominent former political prisoner, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, was “very happy at the news of the release.”

Observers view the relationship between Myanmar's President Thein Sein, and Ms. Suu Kyi as having blossomed since a watershed face-to-face meeting between the pair since last July. Suu Kyi now makes regular press appearances to show support for Thein Sein's reforms.

New freedom, new candor?

Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongudhirak said that Myanmar's newfound freedoms allowed him share some revealing anecdotes he picked up from talking to officials inside the country at a forum on Myanmar politics today: "Thein Sein's wife is a big admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.

But the apparent importance of such personalized politics may suggest that Myanmar's ongoing transition needs to be anchored in stronger laws and institutions.

Soe Aung, an exiled dissident based in Thailand, told the Monitor “there must be a legal and institutional reforms to ensure that that our friends and colleagues are not rearrested and put back in jails again.”

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