Will all Burma's political prisoners taste freedom?

Burma released a handful of political prisoners on Tuesday (December 31) after the government announced a year-end amnesty for those held for political reasons.

Families and friends waited outside Insein prison in Rangoon hoping to see their loved ones.

Yan Naing Tun and Aung Min Naing were released that morning.

“Even though they [the government] said this is amnesty, it is not amnesty for us. They are trying to hide the weakness of the legislature by doing this. But I respect the President because he kept his promise; he has never kept a promise before,” said Naing Tun, one of the released political prisoners.

Yan Naing Tun and Aung Min Naing, who were arrested for leading a march to the headquarters of the ethnic Kachin Independence Organization in northern Burma in January to March last year, were serving seven-month sentences for breaking the Peaceful Assembly Law.

State-run MRTV announced the presidential amnesty in a bulletin late on Monday but did not reveal the number due for release; however an organisation that tracks political detainees said it expected 230 to be freed with the remainder released in mid-January.

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The move follows a pledge by reformist President Thein Sein during a visit to Britain in July that he would release all the country’s political prisoners by the year’s end.

The EU, United States and other Western countries have increased aid and investment, and suspended most sanctions, partly in response to Burma freeing hundreds of political prisoners and other liberal reforms unimaginable under the junta that ruled for 49 unbroken years.

This amnesty is one of at least a dozen the quasi-civilian government has granted since taking office in March 2011.

During the military’s final years in power, as many as 2,500 people, including activists, journalists, politicians and even comedians and artists, were behind bars. Many were subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment.

Bo Kyi, a senior representative of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners- Burma and member of a panel appointed by the president to assess cases of political detention, said 38 activists currently in jail and 192 facing trial or under investigation would be granted freedom.

He said the cases of other detainees were still being looked into because various stakeholders had yet to determine whether their offences were classed as political or criminal.

An official from the Prison Department told Reuters it was still collecting information and the exact number of prisoners to be released was not known.

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