Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Myanmar to free prisoners of conscience soon EmailPrint

Myanmar's president said Tuesday his government would soon release all prisoners of conscience, as part of sweeping political reforms following the end of military rule.

Myanmar has formed a committee to review the cases of political detainees and "all the prisoners of conscience will be free soon", President Thein Sein said in a radio address.

"We are taking time to investigate cases that confuse criminal offences and political offences," he said, adding that people convicted of violent crimes linked to political acts "deserve their sentences".

The military government which ruled for decades had denied the existence of political prisoners.

But hundreds of political detainees have been freed since reformist President Thein Sein took power in March 2011, and last November announced a review of all "politically concerned" cases.

However, activists say some 200 political prisoners remain in jail. They have accused Myanmar of using a series of headline-grabbing amnesties for political gain, aware that the international community is watching.

In the last prisoner amnesty in May, more than 20 political detainees were released before a landmark visit by Thein Sein to the White House. A previous pardon came a day after the European Union agreed to end almost all sanctions against Myanmar.

The arbitrary imprisonment of political opponents was a hallmark of the previous military government and sparked a web of western sanctions which stifled the economy.

Since Thein Sein took power, the nation has undergone dramatic change including the election of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.

Reforms have been warmly welcomed, with most sanctions rolled back and billions of dollars in loans and investments pledged for the impoverished but resource-rich country.

But global leaders and rights groups have backed a call by Suu Kyi -- herself held under house arrest for many years -- for all political prisoners to be freed as a sign that the changes are binding.

In his speech, Thein Sein insisted the aim of the amnesties was "national reconciliation... there is no other political advantage that we want".

But rights groups remained to be convinced.

"We welcome the fact the government admits it has political prisoners," Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK told AFP.

"But with Burma (Myanmar) it's always best to judge by action, not by words... Thein Sein has promised to release prisoners before, but why are there hundreds still in jail?"

In his address, Thein Sein also praised a tentative peace agreement reached with ethnic minority Kachin rebels last week, aimed at ending the nation's last festering civil war which has displaced tens of thousands of people.

"The agreement is a big step to end the domestic armed conflict that has existed for more than 60 years," he said, thanking Myanmar's powerful army, the Kachin independence Organisation and civil society groups for helping the peace push. - Channel News Asia

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