Myanmar frees over 100 political prisoners, but jails 2

Yangon (Myanmar): More than 100 political prisoners in Myanmar have been freed under an amnesty ordered by the country’s new de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as her first official act.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper today cited police as saying that 113 political detainees were freed across the country.

Their freedom came along with a general amnesty for ordinary convicts ahead of Myanmar’s traditional New Year festival, often the occasion for prisoner releases.

The move was praised by human rights advocates, but a jarring note was struck when two peace activists the same day yesterday were each sentenced to two years with hard labour for activities bringing them into contact with an armed ethnic rebel group that has been battling the central government.

A court in the central city of Mandalay sentenced Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt under a law barring associating with an unlawful organisation for their contacts with the Kachin Independence Army, a guerrilla group in the country’s far north. Both were already sentenced in February to two years’ imprisonment for immigration law violations.

The two are members of an interfaith religious organisation and said that they had been seeking to help refugees from fighting. Both are also Muslims, a minority that has faced increasing pressure and violence in recent years in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.

Their case was generally overlooked in the euphoria over the release of prisoners, especially more than 60 students and activists in central Myanmar who had been held for a year pending trial after being arrested for their protest against changes in education policy.

Photos from the scene showed some of the freed prisoners being presented with bouquets and garlands by well-wishers. Rights groups estimated that 100 political detainees remained in prison when a military-backed government was succeeded by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party late last month.

About 400 others were being held pending trial, including the 60 students in the town of Tharrawaddy. Different procedures are required for the release of people from the two groups.

“Today’s release of most of the student protesters is a huge step forward for human rights in Myanmar, and we are delighted that these men and women will walk free. It sends a strong message about the new government’s intention to end the cycle of political arrest and detention in Myanmar,” said Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for the human rights group Amnesty International.