Suu Kyi seeks to free political prisoners

Detained Myanmar students (from left) Honey Oo, 28, and Phyo Phyo Aung, 27, outside the Tharrawady court house before their trial. They are among some 40 students facing charges including unlawful assembly.
Detained Myanmar students (from left) Honey Oo, 28, and Phyo Phyo Aung, 27, outside the Tharrawady court house before their trial. They are among some 40 students facing charges including unlawful assembly.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Myanmar's new pro-democracy govt aims to stamp authority on former junta-run nation

YANGON • Ms Aung San Suu Kyi vowed yesterday to press for the release of political prisoners and student activists in Myanmar, hinting that a mass amnesty may be imminent as her government seeks to stamp its authority on the former junta-run nation.

Ms Suu Kyi's administration, stacked with democracy activists who spent years incarcerated by the military, took power last week, ending nearly half a century of army domination.

In her first statement since assuming a new, broadly defined role as state counsellor, Ms Suu Kyi said: "I am going to try... for the immediate release of political prisoners, political activists and students facing trial related to politics".

She did not provide a specific timeline in the statement, which was posted on Facebook.

The routine jailing of dissidents was one of the most egregious acts of the former junta, stirring international outcry and support for Ms Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement.

Ms Suu Kyi herself spent about 15 years under house arrest, and many current National League for Democracy lawmakers served time in the country's notorious prisons.

While the quasi-civilian government that replaced the junta in 2011 freed hundreds of political detainees, it also oversaw the detention of scores more, particularly those involved in land and education protests.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 90 political prisoners were in jail and more than 400 activists were facing trial as of February.

The majority were arrested before last November's landmark elections, which Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won in a landslide.

Among them are about 40 students facing a mix of charges, including unlawful assembly and rioting over education reform protests in March last year that were violently broken up by baton-wielding police in the central town of Letpadan.

Another 30 or so students are on bail, but facing similar charges.

The students present a special case because while many have been detained for over a year, their trials are ongoing.

To free them, Ms Suu Kyi's statement indicated that the state prosecutor could decide to drop the charges.

The father of detained student activist Phyo Phyo Aung expressed hope that his daughter could be freed. "I am very glad to hear that (Ms Suu Kyi) will work for their release. I think she is doing the right thing," Mr Ne Win told Agence France-Presse.

The role of state counsellor, which was signed off by President Htin Kyaw on Wednesday, was specially crafted for Ms Suu Kyi and enables her to wield influence over Parliament as well as in the Cabinet.

She is also foreign minister and held talks with her Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, prioritising Beijing in the first foray into international diplomacy under the new government.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'Suu Kyi seeks to free political prisoners'. Print Edition | Subscribe