YANGON: Myanmar began releasing hundreds of prisoners – including a political detainee and former military intelligence figures – on “humanitarian” grounds, officials said Tuesday (Oct 7), in the latest large-scale amnesty in the nation.
The reformist regime, which is in the process of preparing to host a landmark November meeting of international and regional leaders, has granted a series of amnesties as part of dramatic reforms since the end of outright military rule in 2011.
President Thein Sein pardoned some 3,073 people, including 58 foreign nationals, citing “stability of the state, the rule of law” and “humanitarian” grounds, according to a Facebook post Tuesday by Information Minister Ye Htut.
One prisoner held on political grounds was among those freed, according to Ye Aung, a representative of the Former Political Prisoners Support Group, which is working closely with the government on negotiating the release of remaining dissidents.
“We only can confirm the release of one political prisoner from Myitkyina prison. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment under the Explosives Act in 2013,” said Ye Aung, estimating that some 75 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“Releasing the prisoners is good. We welcome it. But we want the government to release more. Politically, it is meaningless without the release of many political prisoners.”
Before Myanmar’s reforms, rights groups accused the country of wrongfully imprisoning about 2,000 political detainees. Most have since been pardoned in sweeping amnesties that campaigners have said were often linked to high profile visits by international figures.
In December the country declared that there were no more political prisoners after freeing inmates arrested under a host of junta-era laws restricting dissent.
But campaigners say dozens of people have been arrested under more recent legislation, mainly for protesting without permission, while several journalists have been jailed this year in trials that have drawn international concern. Many former political prisoners have also suffered repeated arrest for continuing their activities.
Ye Aung said eight former military intelligence figures were among those freed Tuesday.
Arrested in a 2004 purge on the department as part of the overthrow of former spy chief-turned-prime minister Khin Nyunt in a junta power struggle, the former officials were thought to be serving sentences of up to 100 years.
Among those freed was Brigadier General Thein Swe. His son, well known media businessman Sonny Swe, announced the release on social media, saying “Having a top day with great news. I’m heading to Myingyan to pick up my dad”.
Dozens of former military intelligence staff, who are not generally considered to be political detainees, are thought still to be behind bars.
Khin Nyunt himself was released from house arrest in 2012 and has since opened an art gallery in Yangon.
Arbitrary imprisonment was a hallmark of nearly half a century under a junta that denied the existence of political prisoners, even as it imposed harsh punishments on rights activists, journalists, lawyers and performers.
Some activists have expressed caution at the government’s high profile amnesties, particularly large-scale releases of ordinary detainees.
“The release of many criminals could harm stability. We have to question the government on what they are thinking with the release,” former political prisoner Toe Kyaw Hlaing told AFP.