Myanmar started releasing about 70 political prisoners, an official said yesterday, after Burmese President Thein Sein vowed to free all dissidents by the end of the year.
The move, the latest gesture of reform by the former general who has ushered in a period of sweeping change in the country, was greeted with caution by activists concerned that authorities are continuing to prosecute dissidents.
“The president has signed an amnesty for about 70 political prisoners around the country,” said presidential advisor Hla Maung Shwe, a senior official at the Myanmar Peace Center.
Last week Thein Sein said during a speech in London that there would be “no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar” by the end of the year.
Rights groups and officials estimate there were between 100 and 150 political prisoners in Myanmar ahead of the announcement.
Activists welcomed the release, but voiced concern over new arrests in the country.
“Even if we welcome this release, we are very concerned because of the new trials, they continue to send new [political prisoners] to jail,” said Bo Kyi of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which collects data on imprisoned activists.
He said about 80 convicted dissidents remain behind bars, according to his group’s estimates, with a further 70 people awaiting trial.
Hla Maung Shwe said some of those being released were ethnic minority rebels from northern Kachin state, where the government is working on brokering a crucial ceasefire deal.
He said some prisoners had already been freed.
Hla Maung Shwe said the the announcement could lead to “more meetings” with Kachin fighters, indicating that the move may have been part of ceasefire negotiations.
Activists welcomed the release, but urged the government to go further.
“The president said in Britain that there would be no political prisoners at the end of this year. We would like to say that the promise needs to be implemented precisely,” said Myint Aung, a member of the Former Political Prisoners group.
He said it was not immediately clear if those freed matched the group’s list of detained dissidents.
“We will continue calling for the release of the rest,” he added.
Thein Sein has been praised by foreign governments for reforms including welcoming Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party into parliament.