About 20 Burmese political prisoners were among those freed Tuesday following a government clemency that opposition party leaders and activists said fell short of expectations.
The clemency order commuting death sentences to life in prison and cutting jail terms for all prisoners was signed by President Thein Sein on Monday in conjunction with this week’s 64th anniversary of independence.
The order made no mention of the plight of particularly high profile political prisoners, including those from a failed 1988 student uprising and serving decades behind bars.
Among them are Khun Htun Oo, a Shan ethnic leader and one of Burma’s most famous political prisoners, who is serving a 93-year sentence, and 88 Generation Students group leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, both serving 65-year prison sentences, and Gambira, a monk serving a 63-year jail term for his role in the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.”
Under the amnesty, prisoners serving more than 30 years will have their sentences cut to 30 years. Those serving 20 to 30 years will have their terms reduced to 20 years, while those with less than 20 years will have their sentences cut by one-fourth.
Win Tin, a senior official of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), said the amnesty announcement “has no meaning and value.”
“Like the 88 Generation Students [group leaders], members of political parties, such as Khun Tun Oo, have all been sentenced to more than 30 years. What will happen now? They will still be in prison for another 30 years,” he said.
“How long do these people have to wait to be released? How long do they have to hope and expect? What about the families who are enduring and struggling for their release? How long do they have to wait?.”
Burma’s new nominally civilian government, which in March replaced a long-ruling, brutal military junta, raised expectations in recent months by adopting various reforms and reaching out to the opposition and the West.
The government pardoned more than 6,300 prisoners—including about 200 political detainees—in a much-anticipated amnesty in October.
A key demand of the opposition and foreign governments has been the freeing of all political prisoners, estimated by activists to number between 500 to more than 1,500.
Last week, an official from Burma’s lower house of parliament raised expectations by saying that more political prisoners will be released on the national holidays of January 4 and February 12.
“More prisoners of conscience will be released very soon for sure,” said Aung Ko, chairman of the judicial and legal affairs committee of the lower house.
According to Families of Political Prisoners Network, some 23 political prisoners were among those released Tuesday from 12 prisons in the country.
Among them was 88 Generation Students group leader Kyi Than, who was arrested before the Saffron Revolution and imprisoned for 9 years. He was, in fact, due for release around this time after his prison term was cut short following an earlier amnesty and appeal.
“Today my time is up and I am due to be released,” he said after walking free from the main Insein prison in Rangoon.
He welcomed “the changes in the political situation” and called for a dialogue between the government and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kyi Than said of the 37 students from the 88 Generation group who were ordered jailed, 11 have been released.
“As we are are working towards democracy, I want to tell President Thein Sein to trust us and release all political prisoners and let all participate in the political process.”
Responding to the latest Burmese government prisoner amnesty, the United States said it fell short of the reform needed for Washington to further normalize ties with the once pariah nation.
“Its not a step of the magnitude that we would be interested in matching,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
“Even one political prisoner is one political prisoner too many,” she said. “We remain concerned about the more than a thousand political prisoners that remain in custody.
“We will continue to make the case to the government in Naypyidaw (Burma’s capital) that it is a full political prisoner release that the international community wants to see,” Nuland said.
Reported by Nyan Win Aung, Ingjin Naing and Win Naing for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.