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Asia-pacific

Dozens of political prisoners freed as amnesty begins

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Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-10-12

Burma freed dozens of "prisoners of conscience" Wednesday as it began an amnesty for 6,359 inmates. The US, Europe and Australia have made the release of thousands of political detainees a prerequisite to talks on lifting crippling sanctions.

REUTERS - Myanmar freed a prominent monk who led street protests in 2007 and dozens of other "prisoners of conscience" on Wednesday as one of the world's most reclusive states begins to open up after half-a-century of iron-fisted authoritarian rule.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to Reuters before Myanmar began a general amnesty for 6,359 inmates that was expected to include political detainees, said she was encouraged by "promising signals" of reform but it was too early to announce steps Washington might take in response

The United States, Europe and Australia have said freeing an estimated 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar is essential to even considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and, over years, driven it closer to China.

"We're encouraged by the steps we see the government taking ... we're going to take them at their word," Clinton said in an interview in Washington, although she added it was premature to predict how the United States might respond.

"But we want to see actions. And if they are going to release political prisoners that would be a very positive sign."

The most prominent dissident released was Shin Gambira, a leader of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance which played a leading role in street marches in 2007 that were violently suppressed by the then-military junta. He was 27 years old when he was sentenced in 2007 to 68 years in prison.

Myanmar has faced pressure for change on multiple fronts - from the need to find alternatives to China in the face of popular resentment of its influence, to growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar's isolation as the region approaches an EU-style Asian community in 2015.

Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar's desire for change, including a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses in the impoverished country where about 30 percent of its people live in poverty, according to U.N. data.

‘Not complete’

By mid-morning, at least 50 political prisoners were known to have been released, according to a Thai-based group that monitors detainees in the former Burma.

"It's not complete," Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), told Reuters.

Another prominent freed dissident was Zarganar, who goes by one name and was arrested in June, 2008. He had been sentenced to 59 years in a remote prison after publicly criticising Myanmar's then-ruling generals for their sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people when it slammed into the Irrawaddy delta a month earlier.

Sai Say Htan, an ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 104 years in prison in 2005 for refusing to take part in drafting a new constitution was also freed, prison sources and relatives said.

Believed to be in his late 70s, Sai Say Htan was a leader of the Shan State Army, which fought for decades against successive military regimes that ruled following a 1962 coup.

"His health has been in very bad condition for a long time, a Yangon-based Shan politician told Reuters.

Previous general amnesties have included only a token number of political prisoners but there may be more reason for optimism this time as Myanmar's government seeks to distance itself from China and makes overtures to the West.

The army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after elections in November, a process ridiculed at the time as a sham to cement authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.

Nevertheless, President Thein Sein, a retired general but the first civilian head of state in half a century, has initiated overtures, including calls to win over restive ethnic minorities, some tolerance of criticism and more communication with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released last year from 15 years of house arrest.

A new national human rights commission called on the president in an open letter published in state media on Tuesday to free prisoners who did not pose "a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility".

Pressure to open up

The open letter marked a significant shift in the former British colony, also known as Burma, where authorities have long refused to recognise the existence of political prisoners, usually dismissing such detainees as common criminals.

Nestled strategically between powerhouses India and China, Myanmar has been one of the world's most difficult destinations for investors, restricted by sanctions, blighted by decades of inept military rule and starved of capital despite rich natural resources, from gems to timber to oil.

Its infrastructure is in shambles and its sanctions-hit economy has few sources of growth beyond billions of dollars of investment from China. Many of its 50 million people have voiced rare, open criticism recently of Beijing's growing influence in a country where China has been a historic rival.

Last week, the government suspended a $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project, a victory for supporters of Suu Kyi and a sign the country was willing to yield to popular resentment over China's growing influence.

These moves have stirred cautious hopes the new parliament will slowly prise open the country that just over 50 years ago was one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest -- the world's biggest rice exporter and a major energy producer.

In Tokyo, a foreign ministry official said on Tuesday that Japan had resumed some aid to Myanmar in June after the release of Suu Kyi and other signs of reform.

"We may continue with this stance if there are more releases of political prisoners," the official said. "Work still needs to be done in terms of democracy but we think they are moving in the right direction."

But it remains unclear whether all political prisoners would be released at once, or indeed how many would be freed.
 

Date created : 2011-10-12

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