/ 19 October 2011

Burma may free more political prisoners soon

Burma may soon release hundreds more political detainees, a senior government official said on Wednesday, a week after about 200 dissidents were freed in an amnesty welcomed by the West as a step towards reform.

Ko Ko Hlaing, a senior political adviser to President Thein Sein, said no official decision had been taken but that another amnesty soon would be the logical move.

“I have got a feeling that the government may grant an amnesty on remaining prisoners of conscience soon,” he told Reuters.

“Why should the rest remain in prison while some others have been released? I don’t see any point in it,” he said, adding the decision was not his to make.

Comments on the record by senior government officials or people close to national leaders are rare — the country has been tightly controlled by a small group of generals for five decades until elections last year ushered in a new civilian government.

Burma freed about 200 political prisoners, including several prominent dissidents, on October 12, leaving an estimated 1 800 behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), some of whom are serving sentences longer than a century

But Ko Ko Hlaing on Wednesday questioned that number and said the AAPP had gathered its data from outside the country and it was therefore inaccurate. He put the figure at about 600.

Under military rule, Burma denied having any political prisoners and said everyone serving in its jails or labour camps was a criminal.

The amnesty came as one of the world’s most reclusive states begins to open up amid promises of economic and social reforms and a bid to gain international recognition for its new, but much criticised, civilianised system of government.

Western countries have shunned Burma for decades because of its poor rights record but its new civilian government, which came to power on March 30 after the military nominally gave up power, is taking tentative steps to end its isolation.

The release of the political detainees last week, under a general amnesty for 6 359 prisoners, followed a loosening of some media controls and more dialogue with pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a detainee for more than 15 years.

The United States, Europe and Australia have said the freeing of political prisoners is essential to considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and driven it closer to China. — Reuters