Almost all of the 66 prisoners freed by Burma’s government on Monday as part of an amnesty to mark a historic visit to the country by US President Barack Obama were political detainees, according to activist groups monitoring the release.
By some accounts, all but one of the prisoners released today were political activists or members of ethnic armed groups, including several who were facing the death penalty for treason.
Earlier in the day, the Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners Group reported that at least two-thirds of the released prisoners had been held for political reasons. Later, however, the 88 Generation Students group put the figure at 65.
Included among the released prisoners were members of the Karen National Union, the Shan State Army and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), the outlawed “student army” formed after Burma’s failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
Letyar Htun, a former student activist who was one of a dozen prisoners released today from the notorious Tharrawaddy Prison in Pegu Division, told The Irrawaddy that the prison still holds at least 14 other political prisoners.
“It’s like they’re using political prisoners as political bargaining chips,” said Letyar Htun, adding that five ABSDF members had been allowed to leave the prison.
Today’s amnesty comes just 10 days after the ABSDF requested the release of 30 of its members during talks in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the government’s chief peace negotiator, President’s Office Minister Aung Min.
At least two other ABSDF members were also released from Mandalay Prison, including Aung Thiha, who had been sentenced to death in April 2000 on charges of high treason, and Maung Maung Oo, who was also facing the death penalty for his alleged role in a 2006 market bombing in Tamu Township, Sagaing Division.
“The political prisoner release should have been done on another day, not on the same day that US President Obama is visiting the country,” said Maung Maung Oo, adding that at least three dozen political prisoners remain in Mandalay Prison.
Kyaw Htay, a member of the opposition National League for Democracy, was also released from Mandalay Prison, after serving 12 years of a 28-year sentence for high treason.
Human rights activist Myint Aye, the founder of the Human Right Defenders and Promoters Network, was released from Loikaw Prison in Karenni State and is heading home to Rangoon, said the group’s leader, Maung Maung Lay.
Activist lawyer Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment after he returned to the country from the Thai-Burmese border in August, was released from Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison along with nine others activists, said Ba Myo Thein of the Former Political Prisoners Group.
Ba Myo Thein said his group welcomed the release, but added that the number of freed prisoners was smaller than expected. According to the group, there are more than 200 political prisoners still behind bars.
Of the prisoners released today, he said: “They should have been freed a long time ago. The fact that they were released today shows that they are just being used for political gain.”
This is the second prisoner amnesty announced by President Thein Sein in less than a week. Last Thursday,452 detainees were released, none of them prisoners of conscience.