No more political prisoners in Myanmar?

Many are skeptical of Myanmar’s recent promise to let them all go by the end of the year.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Win Thaw (l.) and Win Hla (r.) Myanmar political prisoners who were released from Insein Prison after receiving amnesty from Myanmar's President Thein Sein, walk outside the entrance of the prison Tuesday, July 23, 2013, in Yangon, Myanmar.

No more political prisoners in Myanmar?

That’s what President Thein Sein is promising the world, by the end of the year.

His reformist government made a downpayment on his vow by releasing 73 prisoners on Tuesday, just after a trip to Europe that included a visit to 10 Downing Street to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But critics, including former prisoners who did time for their political activities, argue there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. For one thing, people are still being locked up on grounds that they consider political, such as for recent protests against a Chinese-run copper mine in northwestern Myanmar.

The government’s prisoner releases, which have occurred periodically since the transition from military to civilian rule began in 2011, also appear politically timed and motivated, they say, always coming right before or after a big meeting with an American or European leader.

“This is great news, but we have doubts,” says Thiha Win Tin, who was imprisoned for political activities surrounding the antigovernment “Saffron Revolution of 2007 and served three years of a five-year sentence before being released in one of Thein Sein’s initial amnesties in 2011. “Sometimes they play a political trick for international image.”

The 20-something is a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, formerly an underground organization that advocates for a general, and immediate, amnesty.

Still, it’s improvement from two years ago, when Thein Sein denied the very existence of political prisoners.

The state-run English language newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, said Wednesday that the prisoner amnesty was granted “with the aim of placing emphasis on humanitarian grounds and encouraging them to be able to serve the national interest after understanding the goodwill of the State.”

It also helped change the subject, for the moment. United Nations Chief Ban Ki-moon, who earlier this month criticized the Myanmar government for not doing enough to stem anti-Muslim violence, cheered Tuesday’s announcement. “He hopes that these and other measures undertaken recently in the country’s transition to democracy will further strengthen efforts toward a comprehensive nationwide cease-fire and national reconciliation in Myanmar,” said a spokesperson.

The prisoner issue is a continuing obstacle in the relationship between the United States and Myanmar. The European Union has eliminated most sanctions on the former pariah state. But even though the US government has eased restrictions, the existence of political prisoners is one key factor that has prevented President Obama and the US Congress from fully abolishing them.

It’s notoriously difficult to determine how many such prisoners remain in Myanmar’s jails, given the still-opaque nature of the government. Estimates range from just over 100 to several hundred.

In part it goes to the definition of “political prisoner.” Some say it should include only “prisoners of conscience” jailed for peaceful political activities. Other say it should encompass the many jailed members of ethnic militias in Myanmar’s long-contested border areas, and rural villagers who may have unwittingly been caught up political disputes.

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