BANGKOK // Myanmar's military rulers have released more than 7,000 prisoners in the lead-up to next year's planned elections - the first in 20 years - but critics of the regime have condemned the move as part of a cynical attempt to reduce international pressure on the junta at the start of the UN General Assembly in New York this week.
"Every one of these prisoners is a person, and it is unacceptable that the junta uses them as chips to bargain with and play the international community," said David Scott Mathieson, the Thailand-based Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Even if a handful of political activists have been freed, others are still being arrested." Bo Kyi, the head of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners - Burma (AAPPB), said the releases were a showcase "to ease international pressure".
The vast majority of the 7,114 released so far were described as petty criminals, but at least 126 are political prisoners, according to AAPPB. Around a further 200 activists expected to be released in the future are recognised political prisoners. Some of them were on the United Nation's priority list of prisoners submitted to the junta's leaders last year by the UN secretary general's special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari.
The announcement of the prisoner releases came on the eve of the anniversary of the current military rulers seizing power in a bloody coup on September 18, 1988. The announcement said they were being released on "humanitarian grounds" so they could participate in multiparty elections next year. "There was no announcement of who the prisoners to be released were, so we have to wait until their families contact us to know whether any are our members," said Nyan Win, the spokesman for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. So far more than 40 NLD members have been freed, he said, among them three who were elected as members of parliament in 1990.
Six members of the 88 Generation Students, an opposition group spawned from the student movement of the late 1980s which was targeted in the 1988 coup, were among those released from jail. The six were sentenced to more than 60 years in jail for their alleged part in organising the Buddhist monk-led mass protests two years ago over rising food prices. Four monks arrested after the Saffron Revolt in 2007, four journalists, 13 students and a lawyer were also freed, according to AAPPB.
So far there has been no high-profile political prisoner freed but the renowned comedian and critic of the government known as Zarganar, arrested for handing out food and relief supplies to victims of the devastating cyclone Nargis which hit Burma at the beginning of May last year, is expected to be released in the next few days, according to family sources. He is reported to be planning to form a party to contest next year's elections, and diplomats in Yangon believe that may be the reason behind his expected release.
The prisoner releases also come just days before Myanmar's prime minister, Gen Thein Sein, attends the UN session. He will be the highest junta leader to attend the UN in New York for more than 15 years. Many analysts and activists believe these releases are intended to deflect criticism at the meeting and to show the international community that the military regime is co-operating with the UN. After the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's mission to Myanmar in July, when the country's top general, Than Shwe, refused to allow him to meet Ms Suu Kyi, he promised to release a substantial number of political prisoners before the elections in 2010, in response to a UN request.
"Clearly, this is a gesture in response to Ban Ki-moon's request, made on behalf of the international community, during his visit to Myanmar earlier this year," said Benjamin Zawacki, the Thailand-based Myanmar researcher for Amnesty International. "And as such it is disingenuous and insultingly insufficient. "These prisoners' releases are simply too little, too late," he added. "Too little, because releasing around 120 political prisoners represents less than five per cent of the more than 2,200 political prisoners who are still languishing in Myanmar's jails."
Diplomats in Yangon believe more political prisoners will be released in the coming months, but that they will be freed in dribs and drabs. According to the junta's road map to democracy, there should be a mass amnesty for political prisoners. This was agreed more than five years ago between the former prime minister, Gen Khin Nyunt - now under house arrest - and the UN's Myanmar envoy at the time, Dato Razali Ismail. But few believe the regime will honour this promise, though a few more political prisoners may see the light of day.
"The junta cannot be serious about an amnesty or free and fair elections, if they do not release all political prisoners, including our leader, Aung San Suu Kyi," said Zin Linn, a spokesman for the exiled opposition, based in Thailand. "They may free other activists, but the key opposition leaders will certainly be kept behind bars until after the election." Next year's elections are dominating the agenda in Myanmar at the moment, according to diplomats and businessmen living there. "Ministers are unavailable for meetings at present because they are out campaigning - handing out money and largesse in the areas where they expect to stand for election," said a European businessman, who recently visited the capital Naypitdaw.
But there are few signs from the regime on when exactly the election will be held and who will be allowed to run. The electoral law and the political party registration law are yet to be published, though according to senior government sources that will happen in the next few weeks. Some critics believe the prisoner releases have another purpose, besides easing international pressure on the regime - freeing up prison space for crackdowns during the elections.
"The junta cannot allow the campaign to be free and fair," said the Thailand based journalist and Myanmar Bertil Lintner. "They are emptying the jails now to fill them up later - that's what also happened in 1988, ahead of the mass pro-democracy protests, when thousands and thousands of activists were later locked up." firstname.lastname@example.org