Senior US envoy urges Myanmar to free ‘all’ political prisoners
NAYPYIDAW: The first US envoy to visit Myanmar since last year’s landmark polls on Monday urged President Thein Sein to release all remaining political prisoners before Aung San Suu Kyi’s government takes power next month.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government steered reforms culminating in the November election that saw Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party win an outright majority.
Those reforms included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, many jailed for long sentences under the junta which ruled the country with an iron-fist for five decades.
In talks in the capital Naypyidaw, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met the president, Suu Kyi and army top brass and congratulated them on holding a “peaceful” and successful poll.
But he urged Thein Sein’s government to free all remaining prisoners including dissidents prosecuted in recent months in legal moves that have raised fears of a return to the bad old days of repression.
“One of the hallmarks of the reform process is that 1,300 or more political prisoners were released,” he told reporters after the talks.
“But political prisoners remain and others are in the process of being prosecuted,” he said.
“It would be a fitting completion of that legacy (of reform) to release all political prisoners so that by the time transition is complete and the new government takes office, no-one is in prison for their political views.”
Rights groups say scores of political prisoners remain behind bars from the junta era.
Lawmakers from Suu Kyi’s victorious National League for Democracy party are due to take their seats in parliament on February 1 as the country undergoes a surge in optimism for a democratic future despite myriad economic and social challenges.
Thein Sein has released prisoners at key moments in the reform process including ahead of high-profile visits from dignitaries including US President Barack Obama.
But in March last year authorities launched a violent crackdown on a student-led education protest in the town of Letpadan, some two hours north of Yangon.
Around 60 young activists remain in prison following that episode and face trial accused of stirring unrest.
Obama has pumped large amounts of political capital into Myanmar’s transition from authoritarian basket case to a fledgling democracy, offering financial help and diplomatic support.
But the US has also made clear its discomfort at ongoing violence between Myanmar’s army and ethnic rebels as well as religious violence and discriminatory policies particulary targeting the Muslim Rohingya minority in the west of the country.
Blinken called on the government-in-waiting to end “discrimination and violence experienced by ethnic and religious minorities including the Rohingya population in Rakhine state”.
“The solution is the rule of law equally applied to all,” he said, urging Myanmar’s people to grasp the chance to create “an equal chance for everyone to participate in the democratic life of the country.”
The final session of the current parliament is set to end on January 29, but a new government will not be formed until March.