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RANGOON—The former capital may be getting a lick of new paint before Barack Obama arrives at the weekend, but the lack of any political prisoners among the 452 detainees released in Thursday’s amnesty is more likely to catch the 44th US president’s eye.
Tate Naing, the secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), told The Irrawaddy on Thursday afternoon that he was “very disappointed” that no prisoners of conscience had been included.
Nevertheless, beautifying work around Rangoon continues in earnest after the US State Department confirmed Obama’s visit earlier this week. Workers cleaned up dirty pavements, collected rubbish and decorated historic Rangoon University where he is scheduled to give a speech.
The Irrawaddy paid a visit to the famous campus and found security deployed all around. Three armed guards took up positions at every gate with refuse collections in full flow and damaged walls given some long-overdue loving care.
Many Rangoon residents see the release of prisoners and preparations ahead of Obama’s visit as the government cleaning up before an important house guest arrives—a transparent ploy to promote Burma to the world’s most powerful man.
Win Htein, an MP and senior member of the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the authorities could choose to release prisoners at any moment but only do so when there is someone to impress.
“Why do they release the prisoners now?” he asked. “They have a reason. That reason is because Obama is coming here.”
The Irrawaddy visited Insein Prison on Thursday morning and learned that no political prisoners had been released from the institution—most freed inmates were criminals jailed for theft or drugs offences.
Myint Win Maung, a former political prisoner in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy, “We are happy that they released the prisoners. But it is sad to learn that no political prisoner have been released so far. We want them to prioritize prisoners who were jailed due to their political beliefs.”
It was good that Rangoon University was being cleaned up to welcome Obama, he added. “But we don’t want the authorities to care only when Obama is coming to Burma,” said Myint Win Maung. “We want them to take care of Rangoon University forever as it is like our national symbol.”
The crumbling campus, an original hub of the students’ political movement since British colonial rule, has been at the center of major events throughout modern Burmese history. But regular classes have not been held there since the 1990s after the former military junta systematically moved universities to suburban areas in order to quell dissenter activities.
The government granted amnesty to prisoners for humanitarian reasons with the aim of aiding national reunification and efforts for a permanent peace in the country, according to a statement on the President’s Office website on Thursday. Some foreigners were among the amnesty and will be deported to their respective countries upon release, it added.
Many Rangoon residents think Obama’s visit will bring significant benefits as he has the power to shift US policy on Burma. Some, however, said that the Burmese authorities should also arrange for the 51-year-old to see how ordinary people in downtown Rangoon live in poor conditions and struggle daily just to survive.
Kyaw Min Yu, a member of the Rangoon-based 88 Generation Students activist group, told The Irrawaddy that Obama’s visit is a positive sign as he introduced the policy of engagement with Burma while maintaining sanctions on the former military regime during his first term in office.
Obama’s trip is part of a three-nation tour to Southeast Asia from Nov. 17 to 20 that will also take him to Thailand and Cambodia. In Thailand, he will meet Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to mark 180 years of diplomatic relations and reaffirm bilateral ties.