MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Fifty-six political prisoners—nearly a third of them ethnic Kachin—were released on Tuesday, according to President’s Office Minister Aung Min, who is leading a government delegation for peace talks in the Kachin State capital this week.
Aung Min made the announcement at the opening ceremony of the three-day peace talks with the ethnic rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in Myitkyina.
“Today, at 11 am, 56 political prisoners were released. Among the 56, 18 of them are our ‘relatives’ from Kachin State. It is a very special day,” Aung Min said.
In addition to coinciding with the three-day peace talks in Myitkyina, the prisoners’ release comes ahead of President Thein Sein’s departure for Brunei, where Southeast Asian leaders will gather for the 23rd Asean Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan this week. Other large releases of political prisoners have also come ahead of high-profile international developments concerning Burma, such as the European Union’s lifting of economic sanctions in April, and prior to Thein Sein’s historic visit to the White House in May.
According to the Former Political Prisoners Group, most of those released are ethnic Kachin and Shan who were behind bars on charges related to the Unlawful Association Law.
“Most of these people were accused of having contact with ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army or Shan State Army. We can say that the government is releasing these people coinciding with the peace talks in Kachin State to show that they are working compassionately for peace,” said Rangoon-based Thet Oo, spokesman for the group and a former political prisoner himself.
According to Thet Oo, about 140 political prisoners remain behind bars, while other activists are facing trials for staging or assisting unauthorized protests. That fact, he said, cast doubt on Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political prisoners by year’s end.
“We do not believe President Thein Sein will free all political prisoners by the end of this year, because there are many activists facing trials and they will surely get prison terms. So, our country will never be free of political prisoners since we do not have freedom of expression and freedom of speech yet,” Thet Oo said.
In Myitkyina, ethnic Wa rebel representatives from the United Wa State Army (UWSA) are also in attendance for this week’s peace talks, as are international observers including UN special adviser to Burma Vijay Nambiar and Chinese officials from the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon.
Li Xiaoyan, a counselor from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said ahead of the meeting that Beijing was pleased to see the two sides sit down again, after more than 27 months of on and off fighting.
“We hope the meeting will be successful. We are also glad to see that they [the government and KIO] are openly talking to each other.
“Border stability is the common interest of both of us [Burma and China],” Xiaoyan added.
The KIO and the government army have been fighting since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011, with the conflict having displaced an estimated 100,000 people.
The KIO and the government’s peace team are expected to discuss troop repositioning; the resettlement of internally displaces persons (IDPs) and refugees; a proposed nationwide ceasefire; and the convening of a political dialogue, among other issues.
“We discussed how to reduce the fighting, how to move forward to a firm ceasefire agreement. We also talked about how to prepare for resettlement of the refugees and IDPs when they return home one day,” said Gen Sumlut Gun Maw, deputy chief of staff of the KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Asked about prospects for a ceasefire between the two sides, Gun Maw said more than just an agreement between armed factions would be required to achieve a lasting peace.
“A ceasefire just involves those who are armed. What we want is a political dialogue in which all parties can get involved,” he said.
This is the second round of peace talks in Myitkyina between the KIO and the government peace delegation. The first meeting took place in May of this year, and ended with the two sides signing an agreement to “undertake efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities” and to “continue discussions on military matters related to repositioning of troops.”
Since then, the government in July released 26 ethnic Kachin political prisoners, but clashes between the two sides’ armed forces have been intermittent throughout the intervening months.
A high-ranking government army official, Lt-Gen Myint Soe, who commands the Bureau of Special Operations-1 overseeing military operations in Kachin State, is also attending the Myitkyina peace talks this week.
Other ethnic representatives, among them officials from the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), Karen National Union (KNU), Chin National Front (CNF) and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), are attending as observers. Civilian society organizations and political parties, including the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), have also sent representatives.
Zarni Mann contributed reporting from Rangoon.