Myanmar frees more political prisoners

Story highlights

  • Suu Kyi disputes official request that she stop using the word "Burma"
  • A rights group has so far reached 24 political detainees who have been freed
  • The authorities don't specify how many of 46 prisoners being released are political
  • "The release is confirmed, and it has started," a prisoner rights group official says

A prisoner release announced Tuesday by Myanmar authorities includes at least 24 political detainees, a prisoner rights group said.

The government planned to release 46 prisoners Tuesday in order to "help national reconciliation," the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported. The government doesn't distinguish between political and non-political detainees.

But Bo Kyi, joint secretary of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said that his organization had so far managed to reach a total of 24 political prisoners who had been freed. "The release is confirmed, and it has started," he said.

AAPP is a nonprofit organization that gathers information on political prisoners and their conditions in Myanmar, as well as providing assistance to the prisoners and their families. It estimates that about 400 people in Myanmar remain in detention for political reasons.

The government of President Thein Sein has released hundreds of political prisoners in the past year, part of a series of political reforms after decades of repressive military rule. Western governments have responded to the efforts by easing sanctions on the country.

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The authorities have also engaged in peace talks with rebel ethnic groups and allowed the opposition party of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in by-elections for the national parliament in April.

Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won nearly every seat up for grabs in those elections, and she and other newly elected NLD members have taken up their seats in parliament.

Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest in Myanmar, last month made her first visit to Europe in 24 years, finally giving the acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1991 and addressing the British parliament.

Despite the recent progress in Myanmar, concerns remain over whether the military establishment, which maintains overwhelming control of parliament, is committed to deep and lasting political change.

In a recent example of the gulf in attitudes toward freedom of speech in Myanmar, the country's election commission published a statement in New Light of Myanmar last week telling Suu Kyi and the NLD to stop referring to the country as Burma.

The name Burma is derived from the country's majority ethnic group, the Burman. It was officially used during and after British colonial rule, until the military junta renamed the country Myanmar in 1989. Like Suu Kyi, many citizens still refer to the country as Burma, as do the British and U.S. governments.

Citing the use of the word Myanmar in the country's constitution, the election commission said "no one has the right" to call it Burma.

But Suu Kyi on Tuesday disputed the commission's assertion.

"This is a democratic country I can say what i want to say," she said in her first news conference since her return from Europe.

Suu Kyi noted that there was no clause or section in the constitution forbidding people from saying Burma.