Burma frees top dissidents, feelings mixed

Burma today carried out its most far-reaching political prisoner amnesty to date, with top dissidents freed and signs that a reform programme that many had met with scepticism is genuinely taking hold.

Among the 651 political prisoners released were student leader Min Ko Naing, perhaps Burma’s most famous political prisoner, and monk Ashin Gambira. Both have now been reunited with their families, while hundreds of relatives await at Rangoon airport as the released are flown in from remote prisons around the country.

Sixty former military intelligence officials purged by the former junta were also included, as was former prime minister and intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who was placed under house arrest in 2004 after falling foul of then-junta chief Than Shwe.

It marks perhaps the boldest signal yet that change is underway in Burma, and follows only a day after the government agreed a ceasefire with the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) for the first time in more than six decades of conflict. Western governments have said that the release of jailed dissidents and a cessation to fighting in the country’s border regions are key prerequisites for an end to sanctions on Burma.

Those released had mixed feelings about the event. Khin Nyunt told reporters that he was glad of his freedom and that had no hard feelings towards the regime that jailed him. “I hold no grudge against them. I am happier that I will be now able to live peacefully with my family again.”

Ashin Gambira on the other hand said that Burma“still has a long way to go. Although they are releasing prisoners now, they still have characteristics of the dictatorship. What kind of democracy is this? They had to wait until today to release us.”

His scepticism was echoed by released Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, who was serving a 93-year sentence in the remote Putao prison near the Chinese border.

“I feel no emotion at all to be released because I wasn’t supposed to be arrested in the first place. I didn’t commit any of the crimes they accused me of – there was no national treason. I have wasted seven years of my life for something I didn’t do and there’s nothing to be happy about now.”

Also released were five DVB reporters – Hla Hla Win, Sithu Zeya, Win Maw, Ngwe Soe Linn and U Zeya – jailed for their work in documenting the crimes of the former ruling junta. Sithu Zeya, 21, said that certain conditions had been attached to his release, including a ruling that if he commits any crime in the future, he will be forced to serve the whole of his 18-year sentence.

Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has lobbied for their release, cautiously welcomed the news and called for the remaining political prisoners to be freed.

“Today’s release provides a golden opportunity for President Thein Sein’s government to implement significant media reforms, including an end to pre-publication censorship and amendments to laws like the Electronics Act which have been used in the past to suppress the press and Internet freedom.”

“The signals coming out of Burma are undoubtedly positive from a press freedom perspective, but they must be reinforced with legal changes to be meaningful and sustainable. We remain sceptical of the military-backed government’s intentions and wary of a possible reversal of the limited gains seen so far.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was in Burma earlier this month to push for greater reform. He responded to today’s amnesty and the ceasefire announced yesterday between the government and the KNU with enthusiasm.

“This is exactly the kind of measure I called for in all my meetings with Burmese government leaders last week. So is this week’s much-needed ceasefire in the conflict with the Karen people.”

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