By Francis Wade
US President Barrack Obama hailed today’s political prisoner amnesty in Burma as a “substantial step forward” after more than 650 jailed dissidents were released from prison, among whom are the 13 remaining reporters for the Democratic Voice of Burma.
The US has now agreed to exchange ambassadors with Burma in the strongest signal yet that reforms in the country, long isolated by the west, are considered genuine in Washington.
Among those released today were prominent activists Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira, as well as former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who was placed under house arrest in 2004 by then-junta chief Than Shwe. Burmese Nay Phone Latt was also freed, as were the remaining 13 reporters for DVB, some of whom had been serving sentences of more than 60 years.
“We are pleased to see the government continuing to advance in the right direction and we urge it to release all the other detained journalists and Internet users,” said the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. “Once all the detainees have been freed, we hope the government will also address the need for reforms and the need to end censorship in Burma.”
President Obama said the release of political prisoners, the most far-reaching in Burma’s history, was positive, but urged additional measures to cement the reform process.
“Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement,” he told reporters.
“I have directed Secretary Clinton and my administration to take additional steps to build confidence with the government and people of Burma so that we seize this historic and hopeful opportunity.”
Human Rights Watch said today’s events were “a crucial development in promoting respect for human rights in Burma” but reminded the world that more political prisoners remained behind bars.
“For years Burma’s prisons have been off-limits to any independent monitoring mechanism,” said the group’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson. “The next step for Burma’s government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners.”
Today’s amnesty saw 651 political prisoners freed from lengthy spells in prison, among whom were 60 former military intelligence officials purged in the aftermath of Khin Nyunt’s fall.
It follows only a day after the government agreed a ceasefire with the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) for the first time in more than six decades of conflict. Western governments have said that the release of jailed dissidents and a cessation to fighting in the country’s border regions are key prerequisites for an end to sanctions on Burma.