Myanmar falls short of releasing all political prisoners

Min Ko Ko (centre), a released political prisoner, shouts in front of Insein prison upon his release from detention in Yangon on Jan 22, 2016.
Min Ko Ko (centre), a released political prisoner, shouts in front of Insein prison upon his release from detention in Yangon on Jan 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar freed 101 political prisoners last week, bringing the number of political detainees released by President Thein Sein to more than 1,200 since his semi-civilian government took power in 2011, a watchdog group said on Monday (Jan 25).

Still, rights groups say, the outgoing government has fallen short of releasing all political prisoners and continues to arrest and charge people on political grounds.

"The government has released all 101 political prisoners who were supposed to be released starting last week. Most of them protested against the government, including the Letpadaung copper mine, land grabs and other cases," said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of political prisoner watchdog Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Thein Sein's administration had released 1,235 political prisoners since 2011, Bo Kyi said. But 409 political prisoners were still on trial and 84 remained behind bars.

Notable among those in the amnesty was Phillip Blackwood, a New Zealand man who was sentenced to two and a half years in jail along with two Myanmar colleagues for using a psychedelic image of Buddha to promote a party at a Yangon bar.

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.

Friday's release came just before a new parliament dominated by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy sits for the first time on Feb 1.

The NLD won a resounding victory in the November election, trouncing the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that took power in 2011 following 49 years of military rule.

But as some prisoners were walking free on Friday, Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, an NGO worker, was sentenced to six months imprisonment for a Facebook post deemed insulting to the military.

With timed served, he is expected to be released in April.

Chaw Sandi Tun, a member of the NLD, was also sentenced to six months in late December for a post on Facebook that mocked the military's new uniforms.

"President Thein Sein has an opportunity to make this right before his administration ends," said Matthew Smith, executive director at the NGO Fortify Rights, in a statement on Monday. "He should release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally."