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Change in Myanmar? Prisoner amnesty begins

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 10:31 AM EDT, Wed October 12, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Among those freed are a well-known comedian and an ethnic Shan commander
  • But human rights activists say all political prisoners should be released
  • Myanmar has made moves in recent months to reach out to its critics
  • The scope of the developments has been surprising to some

(CNN) -- Myanmar released dozens of political prisoners Wednesday, among them a well-known comedian and an ethnic Shan general, the latest in a series of moves that could help the isolated nation normalize relations with the West.

The mass amnesty, which authorities say will eventually free 6,300 prisoners, has helped fuel hope for change in one of the most repressive states in the world.

"The government is striving for emerging good governance and clean government, flourishing of democratic practices, ensuring rule of law, making economic reform and motivating environmental conservation in building a new peaceful, modern, and developed discipline-flourishing democratic nation," said a statement from President Thein Sein posted Wednesday on the New Light of Myanmar news agency website.

But is the amnesty an authentic step toward liberalization -- or another gesture by the new government to appease critics?

Speaking in Thailand this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said undeniably, "dramatic developments" were under way in Myanmar that could prompt Washington to improve ties. The United States imposes an embargo on arms and investment in Myanmar, once known as Burma before a military junta took over.

But human rights activists warned against showering Myanmar's leadership with too many kudos too fast.

Only about 150 of Myanmar's more than 2,000 political detainees were released in the amnesty, said Thein Oo, a senior member of the National League for Democracy, the party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Many prominent dissidents remain behind bars.

"If we talk about the change going on in Burma, what I can say is I still don't believe that Burma is really on the right track," said Zarganar, the comedian who was released Wednesday. "I'm saying that based on my experience. What I mean is that only a few political prisoners are included in today's release."

Also released was Maj. Gen Hso Ten, an ethnic Shan commander who was sentenced to 105 years in prison on sedition charges in 2005, said the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Mark Farmaner, director of the London-based human rights group Burma Campaign UK, said the prisoner amnesty is part of the "mood music" created to soothe the world. Obviously, he said, the amnesty was welcome, but it was hardly signaling the government's wish for democracy.

"What's very clear is that Thein Sein is willing to make more concessions in order to get sanctions lifted and get more international legitimacy," Farmaner said.

Release of Myanmar's political prisoners remains a key demand of Suu Kyi and a priority for lifting of Western sanctions.

Myanmar, ruled by generals since 1962, denied for decades that political prisoners even existed.

Since Myanmar's elections in November 2010 -- the first in two decades -- the nominally civilian leadership has been gingerly reaching out to critics.

"Now I think it would be fair to say the elections themselves were flawed in many critical ways, and we have continuing concerns about a number of developments inside the country," Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said Monday in a lecture in Bangkok, Thailand.

"But it is also undeniably the case that there are dramatic developments under way," he said. "We have stated clearly that we are prepared for a new chapter in our relations, and we are watching carefully developments on the ground. And I think it would be fair to say we will match their steps with comparable steps, and we are looking forward over the course of the next several weeks to continuing a dialogue that has really stepped up in recent months."

Tint Swe, the head of Myanmar's state censorship, called Friday for greater press freedoms, saying his own office should be shuttered as part of government reforms, reported Radio Free Asia.

In September, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin held a rare, historic meeting with U.S. officials in Washington following what a U.S. State Department spokesman characterized as positive developments after years of discord over human rights and other issues.

A month earlier, Suu Kyi met with Thein Sein at the presidential residence in Naypyitaw and the two vowed to work together in the nation's interest, state media reported.

The NLD was banned from the 2010 election, but Suu Kyi is fighting to restore her party's legitimacy.

Myanmar and Western nations have been at odds for years because of Myanmar rulers' ongoing clampdown on their political foes, most notably Suu Kyi. She spent most of the past two decades in some form of detention before being released a week after last year's vote.

Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK said the government's talks with Suu Kyi are also about self-preservation. As long as there are popular protests, the government runs the risk of having to crack down on a growing movement as it did in 2007, when outrage over rising fuel prices escalated to Buddhist monks leading 100,000 people in the largest anti-government demonstrations since 1988.

"He wants to take politics off the streets of Burma and bring it under the parliament's wing," Farmaner said about Thein Sein. "He is scared of it being on the streets."

Joshua Kurlantzick, fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, admitted he was a bit wary about the intentions of a government that in the past has failed to implement reforms. However, he said he is surprised at the scope of the latest developments.

"Given that, this reform has definitely gone beyond what a lot of skeptics expected, including myself," Kurlantzick said.

As a longtime pariah nation, Myanmar likely wants international recognition, he said.

"It's important to them," Kurlantzick said.

"It's about diversifying their partners," he said. "They don't want to be totally reliant on China. It's about not being dependent."

But a key issue that is not being addressed, said Farmaner, is rights for Myanmar's ethnic minorities, some of which have waged armed insurgencies against the Burmese government. Until they are included in dialogue, he said, Myanmar cannot make progress.

Ultimately, Farmaner has a warning for Western nations: Don't get carried away. Lift some sanctions if you want to send a message of encouragement, he said. "But don't give away too much, too soon."

CNN's Moni Basu and Kocha Olarn contributed to this report.

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