Myanmar frees prisoners for US visit

‘GOODWILL GESTURE’::The government said the releases were meant as a step in the forging of ties with Washington, yet groups say no political prisoners have been freed

Reuters, YANGON, Myanmar

Fri, Nov 16, 2012 - Page 6

Myanmar released prisoners yesterday in a goodwill gesture ahead of a historic visit to the former military state by US President Barack Obama, but activists and the main opposition party said there seemed to be no political detainees among them.

Burmese state media said the prisoners would be freed with the “intent to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship.”

A Burmese Ministry of Home Affairs official said “prisoners of conscience” would be among them, but declined to say how many.

The National League for Democracy party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said that was not the case.

“It’s so disappointing that none of those freed today are political prisoners,” said senior party official Naing Naing, himself a former detainee.

Myanmar has released about 800 political prisoners as part of a dramatic reform program over the past 18 months, but it is believed to be still holding several hundred.

The prisoners released yesterday included people who had been jailed for deserting the Burmese army or committing some other military offence, Naing Naing said.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) had not heard of any political prisoners being among the 144 people it said had been released by mid-afternoon.

Families are often told by the authorities to prepare for the release of prisoners who can be in jails in distant provinces, but AAPP representative Bo Kyi said he was not aware of any being given such notice on this occasion.

Obama will become the first US president to visit Myanmar when he travels there during a tour from Saturday to Wednesday of Southeast Asia that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia.

He is due to meet Burmese President Thein Sein on Monday, but risks criticism for rewarding the new government too soon, especially with political prisoners still behind bars and after security forces failed to prevent ethnic violence in the west of the country.

“The manipulative use of prisoner releases just before key international moments is getting more blatant than ever,” said Mark Farmaner of the London-based advocacy group Burma Campaign UK.

It, too, had not been able to confirm the release of any political prisoners.

Over the past year, Myanmar, has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup. A semi-civilian government stacked with former generals has allowed elections, eased rules on protests, relaxed censorship and freed some dissidents.

About 700 were freed between May last year and July this year. An amnesty was announced in September, but included only 88 dissidents, the AAPP said, leaving several hundred behind bars.

On Tuesday, about half a dozen human rights activists took part in talks at the White House, which included Samantha Power, a top Obama adviser and outspoken expert on genocide.

Power, considered a “humanitarian hawk” within the administration, signaled on the White House Web site last week that Obama would use the Myanmar trip to pressure the government to do more on human rights.

The activists left the White House meeting satisfied that Obama intended to push Thein Sein hard on human rights and political and economic reforms.