Myanmar pardoned more than 500 prisoners on Monday in an amnesty that included at least 80 political detainees, according to activists, a step that could strengthen the former military state’s growing bonds with Washington.
An announcement on state television did not make clear if any of the 514 affected were political detainees, but two activists groups who monitor dissidents jailed in Myanmar said more than 80 were given presidential pardons.
Bo Kyi, secretary-general of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thai-based group that tracks detainees in Myanmar, said yesterday his group had so far found 88 political prisoners were freed, possibly more.
Ba Myo Thein from the Group for Freedom of Political Prisoners said yesterday 84 dissidents, including 24 Buddhist monks, were released in the amnesty.
The timing of the amnesty is significant coming ahead of a US visit by Burmese President Thein Sein. The US Department of State said US officials would meet the former junta general on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly next week.
It also coincides with a separate US trip that began on Monday by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar’s pariah image and convince the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms.
The US has repeatedly called for all remaining dissidents to be freed as a pre-condition for further economic rewards, including a relaxation of a ban on imports of Myanmar-made products imposed years ago in response to human rights abuses under military regimes, which ruled from 1962 until last year.
In Washington, the US State Department reacted cautiously to news of the amnesty and said it would monitor events to see whether any political prisoners were in fact released.
“We have seen reports that the government of Burma’s Information Ministry has announced that 514 prisoners will be granted presidential amnesty on humanitarian grounds,” a State Department spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity.
“We are watching developments of the prisoner release closely and will work carefully to verify if any political prisoners are released,” she added. “The United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.”
Among those freed was Shwe Htoo, 68, a retired schoolteacher who was jailed for 42 years for attempting to mobilize protesters in 1998.
Recent amnesties have included a mix of dissidents and criminal convicts and the government seldom refers to them as political prisoners.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of the 88 Generations Group of activists, most of whom were incarcerated under the military said: “We welcome the release ... but there are still many prominent prisoners of conscience.”