Mon 14 Nov 2011
Filed under: Inside Burma
Yangon — Myanmar’s army-backed government delayed an expected release of political prisoners on Monday, as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi marked a year since the end of her house arrest.Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in detention in Myanmar, which has been dominated by the military for more than 40 years, and their release is one of the major demands of Western nations which have imposed sanctions.
It was thought the authorities would hold an amnesty before President Thein Sein attends a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc later this week in the Indonesian island of Bali.
But officials said the move was put off at short notice on Monday by the high-powered National Defence and Security Council.
“So far we haven’t had any order or instruction from superiors,” an official who asked not to be named told AFP, adding that the decision to delay the process was made “at the last minute”.
The official said the release had been expected before Thein Sein’s departure for Bali.
“I think they delayed the process as they only wanted to release the political prisoners slowly with the pardon of the president,” the official said.
The reasons for the delay were not clear, but the authorities are now expected to decide on a case-by-case basis which prisoners to release.
Myanmar, which has shown tentative signs of reform in recent months, appears keen to end its international isolation and is seeking to take the ASEAN chair in 2014.
Since taking power in March, Thein Sein, a former general, has surprised critics by holding direct talks with opposition leader Suu Kyi and defying key ally China by freezing work on an unpopular mega-dam project.
The new regime, which replaced a long-ruling military junta after a controversial election, pardoned more than 6,300 prisoners — including about 200 political detainees — in a much-anticipated amnesty in October.
A government-appointed human rights panel on Sunday called for a new amnesty that would include political prisoners “who do not pose a threat to the stability of State and public tranquility”.
A second official source said Monday that the National Defence and Security Council meeting had “seriously considered” the call by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.
“The senior officials are still thinking about a big amnesty like before. But some political prisoners will be released by the pardon of the president as the commission has requested,” the official told AFP.
“It will come step by step. We do not know the exact time of their release as the lists need to be checked and confirmed again by the senior officials.”
Among those released last month were members of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party and celebrated comedian and vocal government critic Zarganar, who uses only one name.
But many leading dissidents, including key figures involved in a failed student-led uprising in 1988, were kept behind bars, disappointing observers and the opposition.
At a press conference on Monday marking the first anniversary of her release after years of detention, Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi said she was “encouraged” by developments in Myanmar in the last 12 months.
Speaking before the government delayed the release of prisoners, she said more action was needed on the issue.
“An issue of great importance to all of us who are working for democracy in Burma is that of political prisoners,” she said.
“Some had been released over the last year, but there are still many who remain in prison.”
The NLD was de-listed last year for boycotting the polls, the first to be held in 20 years, but Suu Kyi said Monday they would reconsider their position on taking part in elections, paving the way for her political comeback.
The exact number of political prisoners currently imprisoned in Myanmar is unclear.
Before last month’s amnesty, rights groups and observers believed the country had roughly 2,000 political detainees but NLD spokesman Nyan Win said the real number was around 500.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday said the United States was ready to become a “partner” of Myanmar if the government pursued “genuine and lasting reform”.