The Burmese government said it has released 452 prisoners ahead of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the country. However, the government was panned by rights groups because none of them were political detainees.
The prisoners were released “on humanitarian grounds” to do “nation building tasks,” reported the state-run New Light of Myanmar, which said that foreign prisoners would be extradited. It also described the move as “realizing sympathy and goodwill of the state” as well as “prolonging friendship with neighboring countries.”
Tate Naing, the secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, told the Thailand-based Irrawaddy publication that he was “very disappointed” when he learned that no political prisoners were among those released Thursday.
Win Htein, a parliamentarian of the opposition National League for Democracy party, believes the Burmese government released prisoners just days before Obama’s visit in order to impress him.
“Why do they release the prisoners now?” he asked. “They have a reason. That reason is because Obama is coming here.”
Reporters with The Irrawaddy found that no political prisoners were released from the Insein Prison. Most of those who were granted amnesty had been imprisoned for theft and drug offenses.
“We are happy that they released the prisoners. But it is sad to learn that no political prisoner have been released so far. We want them to prioritize prisoners who were jailed due to their political beliefs,” former political prisoner Myint Win Maung told the publication.
When President Thein Sein visited the United Nations headquarters in September, a large number of prisoners were released a week earlier.
Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner who led the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, told the publication: “The release of prisoners of conscience should not be used as a bargaining chip.”
In the past year and a half, the new civilian government has made attempts at reforming Burma, including releasing political prisoners, allowing opposition parties to take part in elections, and the easing of censorship. But as Thursday’s prisoner release shows, there is still much work to be done in Burma, which was renamed Myanmar in the 1980s by the former military junta that ruled the country for 60 years.
Many rights groups and Western governments have clamored for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in recent years, and Burma has obliged, but there is concern that still many are behind bars, suffering torture, and are being subjected to inhumane prison conditions.
In a letter sent last week, Amnesty International Asia-Pacific chief Isabelle Arradon suggested that Burma set up a “review mechanism” to determine prisoners of conscience who were convicted of proceedings that did not adhere to international human rights standards.
Burma needs to figure out who was not charged properly and charge them with a “recognizable criminal offense” or release them, she said. The process should determine whether someone is a prisoner of conscience and if so, they should be released immediately.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.