Burma Begins Release of Thousands

Nobel Peace laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a 2002 photo, remains under house arrest. More than 6,300 prisoners are set to be freed.
Nobel Peace laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in a 2002 photo, remains under house arrest. More than 6,300 prisoners are set to be freed. (By Stephen Shaver -- Agence France-presse Via Getty Images)
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By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 23, 2009

PHUKET, Thailand, Feb. 22 -- Burma's military government has begun releasing more than 6,300 prisoners, including some members of the opposition National League for Democracy.

The league is headed by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. Rights groups said only a small number of those being released are political prisoners.

State media said that those who had been released were freed because of good conduct and so they could vote in elections due to be held next year. "I don't think this is a major shift, but we'll have to see over the next few days if any significant leaders are released," said Win Min, a former Burmese student leader who lives in exile in northern Thailand.

Among the fewer than 20 political prisoners released so far are Zaw Myint Maung, who was elected to parliament in the annulled 1990 elections and was given a 20-year sentence in 1991. A number of monks imprisoned since 2003 were also granted their freedom. They were arrested after their monastery rejected a donation from Gen. Khin Nyunt, who was Burma's prime minister until his firing and arrest in 2004.

There were no initial indications that any of the targets of a recent crackdown were among those released. Over the past several months, the government arrested some 600 people for political reasons, including activists, bloggers, lawyers and even comedians. They have been handed long sentences and incarcerated in remote jails.

The releases come shortly after a visit to Burma by Tomás Ojea Quintana, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights. It was Quintana's second visit to Burma in six months, and he gave a bleak assessment of the situation.

"The human rights situation in Myanmar is still challenging," he said after his visit, referring to the country by the name its military rulers prefer. "It's difficult to affirm that the human rights situation has improved."

The Obama administration has promised to review the U.S. policy on Burma, which currently includes sanctions targeted at the country's leadership and some of its most influential business backers.

The Burmese government has planned elections for next year, which will be run according to a new constitution. The constitution now guarantees the military a quarter of the seats in both the upper and lower houses of parliament.

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