Saturday, January 14, 2012

Myanmar frees more political prisoners

Myanmar frees more political prisoners
by Aung Hla Tun, Reuters
January 14, 2012

YANGON - Myanmar freed at least 200 political prisoners on Friday in an amnesty that could embolden the opposition and put pressure on the West to lift sanctions as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up after half a century of authoritarian rule.

Among those freed are long-persecuted democrats and ethnic leaders whose proven ability to organize and inspire could heap pressure on President Thein Sein to accelerate nascent reforms.

The United States and Europe have said freeing political prisoners is crucial to even considering lifting the economic sanctions that have isolated the former British colony, also known as Burma, and pushed it closer to China during five decades of often-brutal military rule that ended last March.

"The release of all political prisoners is a longstanding demand of the international community and I warmly welcome these releases as a further demonstration of the Burmese government's commitment to reform," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement.

As big as France and Britain combined, Myanmar lies between India, China and Southeast Asia with ports on the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, all of which make it an energy security asset for Beijing's landlocked western provinces and a US priority as President Barack Obama strengthens engagement with Asia.

Its resources include natural gas, timber and precious gems. Myanmar is building a multi-billion-dollar port through which oil can reach a 790-km (490-mile) pipeline under construction with Chinese money and workers.

It was unclear exactly how many political detainees were among the 651 inmates covered by the amnesty, the second ordered by authorities in four months. About 230 political detainees were released in an earlier general amnesty on October 12.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that tracks prisoners, said at least 200 had been freed on Friday. These included Min Ko Naing and other members of the "88 Generation Students Group", who led a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 when thousands of protesters were killed.

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