Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Myanmar Frees Prominent Dissident; More Political Prisoners Expected to Follow


October 11, 2011

Myanmar Frees Prominent Dissident; More Political Prisoners Expected to Follow


BANGKOK — Myanmar freed a prominent dissident on Wednesday at the start of what state media said would be the release of 6,300 prisoners in a general amnesty that was expected to include a number of political prisoners.

The first dissident known to have been freed was a popular comedian known as Zarganar, who was imprisoned in 2008 for criticizing the government, according to reports from Myanmar.

The releases of political prisoners had been signaled by an open letter from the country’s new human rights body, which called on the government to free “prisoners of conscience,” a term that was a departure from the country’s longstanding position that all prisoners are common criminals.

The release of the country’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners has been a central demand of Western nations.

The announcement in the official media did not characterize the prisoners, but came amid talks over political prisoners between the government and dissidents, as well as American officials, that led the government to list about 600 it was considering releasing. In the letter, published in three state-run newspapers, the chairman of the human rights commission, U Win Mra, wrote that prisoners of conscience could be released if they did not pose “a threat to the stability of state and public tranquillity.”

“The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission humbly requests the president, as a reflection of his magnanimity, to grant amnesty to those prisoners and release them from the prison,” the letter said.

The developments come as Western nations have been reassessing their policies of sanctions against Myanmar, where a new parliamentary government engineered and dominated by the long-ruling junta has made a surprising number of moves toward establishing basic freedoms in its six months in power.

On Monday, an American assistant secretary of state, Kurt M. Campbell, said in a lecture in Bangkok that Washington might soon take steps to improve its relations with Myanmar in light of “dramatic developments under way” in the new government.

Those have included a reported statement by the director of the country’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department that censoring media is not consistent with democratic values.

The department director, U Tint Swe, was quoted by the United States-financed Radio Free Asia as saying a new media law would allow the press to be free of censors, though he did not say when such a law might be enacted.

The government also appears to have increased lines of communication with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who was released last year from 15 years of house arrest.

At the end of last month, it suspended a hydroelectric dam project led by a state-owned Chinese company that was a showcase project for the previous military government but had drawn criticism from Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi and environmental groups.

In his address in Bangkok, Mr. Campbell said, “I think it would be fair to say that we will match their steps with comparable steps, and we are looking forward in the course of the next several weeks to continuing a dialogue that has really stepped up in recent months.”

The United States, along with other Western nations, has long held a policy of economic and political sanctions against Myanmar because of its violations of human rights and suppression of political freedom.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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