RANGOON — A senior lawmaker said he expects President Thein Sein to soon order the release of dozens of former officers of the notorious Military Intelligence (MI) Service who were purged in 2004 by former strongman Than Shwe.
Burmese human rights groups said in a reaction that they did not object to the men’s release, but added that they want the government to prioritize the release of 46 remaining political prisoners, many of whom are members of ethnic armed groups.
Thein Nyunt, a member of the Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee, said the committee recently sent Thein Sein a letter requesting the release of 20 former MI Service officers and 18 customs officials detained since 2004.
“I submitted the letter to the president through Minister Soe Thein for their release and there was no objection from the other committee members. Minister Soe Thein also agreed with that. That’s why I expect they will be released,” he told The Irrawaddy.
“They are in prison for the treason; they should be released on Independence Day [Jan. 4],” said Thein Nyunt, who chairs the New Democracy Party.
Most of the men were arrested following former military junta leader Than Shwe’s decision to oust spy chief Khin Nyunt in 2004 and abolish the National Intelligence Bureau and MI. The bureau functioned as an umbrella organization of intelligence departments, which included MI, the police force’s Special Branch, the Bureau of Special Investigation and the Central Investigation Bureau.
For more than a decade, Khin Nyunt’s men were responsible for a nationwide crackdown on all forms of dissent against military rule and they locked up tens of thousands of people in Burma’s harsh prisons, where scores died in custody.
Thein Sein’s reformist government has tasked the Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee, which comprises activists, presidential advisors and lawmakers, with identifying remaining political prisoners in Burma with the aim of releasing them.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) is on the committee and the group’s joint secretary Bo Kyi said it did not object to the release of the MI officers.
“They could be released if the government wants, that’s what most committee members think,” he said, before adding, “But we—AAPP, the 88 Generation Students and the Former Political Prisoners Groups—don’t consider them political prisoners.”
Bo Kyi said, however, that the government should speed up the release of the 46 political prisoners that remain behind bars, adding that most of the detainees are members of the Karen National Union, Kachin Independence Army, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front and other armed groups.
“We expect many of these prisoners in the coming days or weeks,” AAPP spokesperson Talky said.
On Tuesday, Thein Sein ordered the release of political prisoners and instructed authorities to drop charges against some 200 defendants, who were on trial for what are considered political activities. Many of the defendants were being charged for organizing protests without prior government permission.
Thein Sein’s government has previously announced that there would be no more political prisoners in Burma by 2014. It released 44 people earlier in December and 69 prisoners in November.
Tin Htut Paing of Generation Youth was among the released on Tuesday and he said that a total 15 prisoners were released from Rangoon’s Insein Prison, adding that 12 of them were political prisoners. Prominent activists, Htin Kyaw and Naw Ohn Hla, were among the released, Tin Htut Paing said.
Naw Ohn Hla was facing charges for participating in a protest in Rangoon in which a Chinese flag was burned, and for allegedly disturbing religious gatherings while holding prayers for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi back in 2007.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has welcomed the latest release of political prisoners in Burma, but raised concerns over the plight of three aid workers of Medicine Sans Frontiers and Rohingya human rights defenders Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung, who were arrested in Arakan State in mid-2012 and mid-2013, respectively.
“We ask the authorities to release those prisoners and to ensure that the prisoner review committee continue its work to resolve all pending cases,” OHCHR spokesperson Cécile Pouilly said in a news release on Tuesday.
Bo Kyi of AAPP said the committee had discussed the situation of the Rohingya activists and aid workers detained in Arakan State but failed to agree on whether they should be released or considered political prisoners.
Thein Nyunt, the lawmaker who defended the release of the MI officers, showed little support for the release of the NGO workers and rights activists detained in Arakan State’s notorious Buthidaung Prison.
“Myanmar’s national security is more important than internationally recognized human rights,” he said, before declining to further comment on the issue.
Tun Kyi, a member of the Former Political Prisoners Group, said former MI officers could be released from prison on humanitarian grounds, adding that activists and NGO workers detained in Arakan should also be released, although he stopped short of calling them political prisoners.
“They should be released too because this is being requested by international organizations, including the UN,” he said.