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Myanmar frees dissidents but many still in jail

Myanmar freed about two dozen political prisoners on Wednesday, including an ethnic minority guerrilla leader and a prominent dissident, as the reclusive state began to open up after half a century of iron-fisted rule.

Updated: Oct 12, 2011, 14:15 PM IST

Yangon: Myanmar freed about two dozen political prisoners on Wednesday, including an ethnic minority guerrilla leader and a prominent dissident, as one of the world`s most reclusive states begins to open up after half a century of iron-fisted rule.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters before Myanmar began a general amnesty for 6,359 inmates that had been expected to include political detainees, said she was encouraged by "promising signals" of reform but that it was too early to announce steps Washington might take in response.

The United States, Europe and Australia have said freeing an estimated 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar is essential to even considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and, over years, driven it closer to China.

Authorities have in the past released dissidents only to detain them again later in crackdowns on democracy activists.

"We`re encouraged by the steps we see the government taking ... we`re going to take them at their word," Clinton said in an interview in Washington. "But we want to see actions. And if they are going to release political prisoners, that would be a very positive sign."

By mid-day, about two dozen political prisoners appeared to have been freed, according to Reporters interviews with prison officials and families of detainees. A Thai-based group that monitors detainees in Myanmar, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), said the total was at least 100.
But one of the country`s most famous political prisoners, who led a failed 1988 uprising, was not freed and rights group Amnesty International said it was disappointed more political detainees were not let go.

There were also conflicting reports about a prominent monk who led street protests in 2007, Shin Gambira, with one source saying he had been freed but an activist later saying he had not.

Myanmar has faced pressure for change on multiple fronts - from the need to find alternatives to China in the face of popular resentment of its influence, to growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar`s isolation as the region approaches an EU-style Asian community in 2015.

Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar`s desire for change, including a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses in a country where about 30 percent of the people live in poverty, according to U.N. data.

One prominent freed dissident was Zarganar, who goes by one name and was arrested in June 2008. He had been sentenced to 59 years in a remote prison after criticizing Myanmar`s then-ruling generals for their sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people when it slammed into the Irrawaddy delta a month earlier.

Sai Say Htan, an ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 104 years in prison in 2005 for refusing to take part in drafting a new constitution, was also freed, prison sources and relatives said.

Believed to be in his late 70s, Sai Say Htan was a leader of the Shan State Army, which fought for decades against successive military regimes that ruled following a 1962 coup.

"His health has been in very bad condition for a long time, a Yangon-based Shan politician told reporters.

PTI