State-run media in Myanmar said Tuesday that 6,300 prisoners would be released in an amnesty, even as a new official human rights body urged the country’s president in an open letter to free what it called “prisoners of conscience,” a term that was a departure from the country’s longstanding position that prisoners are all common criminals. The release of the country’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners has been a central demand of Western nations.
The announcement in the official media did not characterize the prisoners, but came amid talks over political prisoners between the government and dissidents, as well as American officials, that led the government to list about 600 it was considering releasing. News services, citing Myanmar state television and radio, said the releases could begin Wednesday.
In the letter, published in three state-run newspapers, the chairman of the human rights commission, U Win Mra, wrote that prisoners of conscience could be released if they do not pose “a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility.” “The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission humbly requests the president, as a reflection of his magnanimity, to grant amnesty to those prisoners and release them from the prison,” the letter said. (New York Times)
The developments come as Western nations have been reassessing their policies of sanctions against Myanmar, where a new parliamentary government engineered and dominated by the long-ruling junta has made a surprising number of moves toward establishing basic freedoms in its six months in power.
On Monday, United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell said in a lecture in Bangkok that Washington might soon take steps to improve its relations with Myanmar in light of “dramatic developments under way” in the new government. (New York Times)
Those have included a reported statement by the director of the country’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department that censoring media is not consistent with democratic views. The department director, U Tint Swe, was quoted by the United States-financed Radio Free Asia as saying a new media law would allow the press to be free of censors, though he did not say when such a law might be enacted.
The government also appears to have opened increased lines of communication with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who was released last year from 15 years of house arrest. At the end of last month, it suspended a hydroelectric dam project led by a state-owned Chinese company that was a showcase project for the previous military government but had drawn criticism from Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and environmental groups.
Since being released from house arrest, Suu Kyi has held a series of meetings with the president and senior officials to discuss the release of political prisoners and other issues. Government censors, who vet all publications, this week allowed her photograph to appear on the front page of several privately run journals. State-run newspapers have dropped what had been a campaign to demonize her and her supporters in the National League for Democracy. Taken together, the recent forms “have gone too far to be just window dressing,” said Steven Marshall, the International Labour Organization liaison officer in Rangoon. “The political environment now is very different than what it was before.” (Washington Post)
In his address in Bangkok, Mr. Campbell said, “I think it would be fair to say that we will match their steps with comparable steps and we are looking forward in the course of the next several weeks to continuing a dialogue that has already stepped up in recent months.” (New York Times) Mr. Campbell also said there “are clearly changes afoot” in Burma, and added that Washington will respond favourably, though he did not spell out how. (Washington Post)
But Nyan Win, a spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, told the BBC that a prisoner release was not all that was needed. “The release of political prisoners is just one of the barometers of the government’s seriousness about a change to democracy,” he said. “There should be other developments like media freedom, and the relaxation of censorship among other things.” (BBC)
The United States, along with other Western nations, has long held a policy of economic and political sanctions against Myanmar because of its violations of human rights and suppression of political freedom.
The signs of possible liberalization also come as Myanmar seeks to win approval from the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations to allow it to take its rotating presidency of the regional grouping in 2014, two years ahead of schedule.