Myanmar releases political prisoners before power transfer

Myanmar President Thein Sein (left) walking past opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (right) during the opening ceremony of the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on Jan 12.
Myanmar President Thein Sein (left) walking past opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (right) during the opening ceremony of the Union Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on Jan 12.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (REUTERS) - Myanmar began releasing the first of about 100 political prisoners on Friday (Jan 22), government officials said, days before democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is to form a new government after an election victory in November.

The freeing of prisoners by the outgoing administration of President Thein Sein comes after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Myanmar to free all of its political prisoners during a visit on Monday.

“So far, 18 political prisoners were released from Insein Prison. They will release a total of 21 people today,” a prison official at Yangon’s Insein prison told Reuters.

Insein is one of Myanmar’s largest prisons. It is used for jailing political prisoners and is notorious for its poor conditions and bad treatment of inmates.

A senior official from the Home Ministry told Reuters that more than 100 prisoners would be freed from various detention centres across Myanmar.

Another senior official from the President’s Office said the political prisoners were being released as a commemoration of the World Buddhist Peace Conference that starts in Myanmar on Friday.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

“Most of them were arrested for staging protests. As far as I know, there will be 101 political prisoners who will be released in the coming days,” said Mr Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of political prisoner watchdog the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). 

Myanmar’s incarceration of more than 2,000 journalists, activists, politicians and even comedians during decades of military rule was a key factor behind Western sanctions.

Hundreds were released by President Thein Sein’s semi-civilian government, which replaced the junta in 2011 and embarked on a series of political and economic reforms.

However, human rights groups had complained that many were still in jail. In December, there were 129 political prisoners incarcerated in Myanmar and 408 activists were awaiting trial for political actions, according to AAPP’s website.

A new parliament dominated by Nobel peace laureate Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) will sit for the first time on Feb 1.