By Mark Magnier and Simon Roughneen,
Reporting from Imphal, India, and Bangkok, Thailand— Myanmar announced plans Tuesday to release more than 6,300 prisoners in the latest of several modest reform steps taken by the long-isolated nation, although it wasn’t immediately clear how many of those to be freed are political detainees.
Human rights groups, dissident organizations and analysts welcomed the move, but said they remained skeptical that a fundamental change was underway. The military regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has ruled the country with an iron fist for decades.
“We’re basically dealing with the same creature, with slightly more enlightened posturing,” said Zarni, founder of the London-based Free Burma Coalition, an activist group, who uses one name. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves that the regime is driven by reformers.”
Myanmar President Thein Sein granted amnesty to 6,359 prisoners, with releases set to begin Wednesday, according to a statement on Myanmar state radio and television. Wednesday is a religious holiday.
On-screen text during the announcement repeated the oft-cited line that the country has no political prisoners, only criminals, but another official source seemed to suggest that a number of such detainees would be released.
Tuesday’s edition of the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a government mouthpiece, published a plea from the country’s newly formed Human Rights Commission urging the president to release “prisoners of conscience.”
The country has an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, many of whom have been in jail for long periods, including pro-democracy activists, government critics, journalists, members of ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy and monks involved in 2007 antigovernment protests.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said in Bangkok this week that there have been dramatic developments in Burma, although Washington is waiting for more substantial moves.
“We are prepared for a new chapter in our relations,” he said. “And I think it would be fair to say that we will match their steps with comparable steps.”
State television said Tuesday that a list of the prisoners granted amnesty had been prepared, but it was not released. For those who have been waiting for loved ones for years, the lack of information was maddening.
“State media fail to state how many political prisoners will be released,” said Nyi Nyi Aung, a former political prisoner who now lives in the U.S. and whose 65-year-old mother and four other relatives are being held for political reasons. “That can’t make trust-building [happen] between the government and democratic forces.”
Others noted that the regime didn’t have a very good record. The country’s most recent amnesty, in May, saw just 65 political detainees released among 14,600 prisoners who were freed, said Soe Aung, a Bangkok-based Myanmar activist.
The recent tepid reform steps taken by Myanmar include the easing of Internet restrictions, the announced suspension of a controversial Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam project on the Irrawaddy River and the beginning of dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In another move aimed at building overseas ties, Thein Sein, the president, was to arrive in India on Wednesday with at least nine economic and infrastructure ministers. The two sides are expected to discuss regional security, natural resources and the various insurgencies along their shared border.
Analysts said the prisoner release, assuming that it includes political dissidents, appears aimed at boosting economic growth and persuading the West to end sanctions that have hurt the regime and its cronies.
The price it appears willing to pay for that is limited human rights and political reform, as long as it doesn’t lose its grip on power or a large number of key industries.
Myanmar sees the West at this stage as a counterweight to China, said Alana Golmei, coordinator with Burma Center Delhi, an advocacy group based in India. “But it’s very much a balancing act since China is right on the doorstep,” Golmei said.
Last year’s election in Myanmar saw military rule replaced by a civilian-led government. But there were widespread allegations of vote tampering; the military retains control of key positions and many of those who won seats were just-retired members of the armed forces.
Still, a release of political prisoners could pave the way for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to return to the political arena. The party won more than 80% of the seats in the 1990 election before the military leaders overturned the results and jailed many of her supporters.
Activists said she is walking a series of fine lines herself. “Under the circumstances, she’s doing the best she can, but it’s not enough,” said Zarni. “She isn’t encouraging the equivalent of ‘Arab Spring.’ She’s not really raising the key issue of Burma’s ethnic groups. She is holding the line on sanctions, but her party is stripped to the bare minimum.”
“Her wings are clipped,” he said.
Times staff writer Magnier reported from Imphal and special correspondent Roughneen from Bangkok.