Burma frees more than 450 prisoners before Barack Obama’s visit

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November 16, 2012

State media said Wednesday the measure aims to promote goodwill and bilateral relationships. Human rights campaigners said the list of released prisoners did not include any political dissidents.

November 16, 2012

State media said Wednesday the measure aims to promote goodwill and bilateral relationships. Human rights campaigners said the list of released prisoners did not include any political dissidents.

Myanmar's opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi

Burmese authorities have freed more than 450 detainees in a goodwill gesture before a historic visit by the US president, Barack Obama. But human rights campaigners said the list of released prisoners did not include any political dissidents.

Announcing the amnesty – the latest in a series that have coincided with high-profile visits of foreign dignitaries or trips by senior Burmese leaders overseas – state media said late on Wednesday that its aim was "to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship."

A home ministry official told Reuters that an unspecified number of the country's remaining 300 or more political detainees would be released.

However Bo Kyi, of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said no prisoners of conscience had been freed so far. "All are common criminals or foreign nationals from China, Thailand or neighboring countries. We know of no political prisoners among the 452 freed today," he said.

Five or six prisoners had been released from the notorious Loikaw prison in Kayah state in eastern Burma, Bo said, but none were political prisoners. U Myint Aye, a 61-year-old human rights activists and one of the most high-profile dissidents currently detained, is held at Loikaw.

Details of the exact identities of those released on Thursday remain unclear and there was no further confirmation of the AAPP's claim. However, a failure to release any political detainees would mar preparations for Obama's visit, his first after his re-election, on Monday.

Over the past year, Burma has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a military coup 50 years ago. A semi-civilian government stacked with former generals has allowed elections, eased rules on protests, relaxed censorship and freed some dissidents.

In response, the US and the European Union have eased sanctions on the country. However, western leaders have repeatedly called for the release of all remaining political prisoners in Burma. Around 700 were freed between May 2011 and July 2012. An amnesty was announced in September but it included only 88 dissidents.

Campaign groups have been critical of the visit. Obama was rushing to "normalize relations" with Burma, Mark Farmaner, the director of Burma Campaign UK, told the Guardian earlier this month. "Burma isn't a normal country; it is not a democracy and still has one of the worst human rights records in the world," Farmaner said.

Obama, the first ever US president to visit Burma, will be coming from Cambodia, where he is attending the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) summit, via Thailand, a long-standing US ally in the region.

Obama has repeatedly signaled his desire to refocus American foreign policy on the Asia-Pacific region after a decade when conflicts in the Middle East have dominated. One key aim is to roll back growing Chinese influence.

Burma, which has huge natural resources and a key strategic location with borders with China and India as well as Indian Ocean ports, is seen as key to the effort to bolster US influence. During decades of isolation, Beijing consolidated political and commercial links with the Burmese elite. But key players in the opaque military-dominated regime felt that the relationship was one-sided and needed to be balanced.

Obama is due to meet the Burmese president, Thein Sein, seen by analysts as one of the driving forces behind the recent reforms, on Monday. He will also see the veteran pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Earlier this week Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest in November 2010, cautioned against "too much optimism" regarding reforms in her country and, in a speech in India on Wednesday, said Delhi's relatively close relations with the repressive military authorities over recent years had "disappointed" her.

The election of Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, to parliament in April was key in persuading the west to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of reforms. Many US companies are looking at starting operations in the country attracted by the vast untapped market it represents and the prospect of low-cost labor.

Obama is expected to raise the vexed question of minority rights in Burma and the potential for religious violence. There have been repeated clashes between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhists in the west of the country, with hundreds dead and tens of thousand displaced. Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been attacked for not taking a stronger stance on the issue, called the recent strife "a huge international tragedy" in an interview with Indian TV.


This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk