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Myanmar frees 69 political prisoners

Myanmar's government has pledged to free all remaining detained dissidents by the end of the year.

Myanmar political prisoner release Nov 15 2013Enlarge
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Myanmar on Friday said it had released dozens of jailed dissidents, as the fast-changing former pariah state hosts top-level international visitors, including from the European Union.

The country pardoned 69 inmates, the latest in a series of releases that have been seen internationally as a key marker of its emergence from military rule.

Hundreds of political prisoners have been freed since 2011 and only a few dozen are believed to remain behind bars, although critics say the government is continuing to detain activists and opponents.

A statement from the president's office said the latest release was to "respect humanitarian grounds and allow (those freed) to be able to assist in nation building by understanding the benevolence and loving kindness of the state".

It reiterated a pledge that Myanmar would free all remaining detained dissidents by the end of the year.

The announcement, which said the releases began Friday, comes as Myanmar hosts a slew of international delegations.

Reformist President Thein Sein met EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Thursday as part of a wide-ranging European mission to the country.

He also met former US president Bill Clinton, who is in Myanmar on behalf of his foundation, while former British prime minister Tony Blair is also in the country.

Thein Sein, who has won international praise and the removal of most Western sanctions for reforms, announced during his first visit to London in July there would be "no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar" by the end of the year.

But the Myanmar leader has been criticised by activists who accuse authorities of continuing to prosecute dissidents, particularly for protesting without permission. Scores remain behind bars, but the precise number of inmates is unclear.

The government also faces claims that those critics who remain behind bars are being used for political capital with the international community and during ethnic minority peace negotiations.

Ye Aung, a representative of former political prisoners on the committee in charge of reviewing the status of detained dissidents, estimated about 60 activists were still behind bars after the release.

He said some of those freed had been convicted under the new quasi-civilian government, with at least one jailed over demonstrations against a Chinese-backed copper mine in central Myanmar.

"We are trying not to have political prisoners in the future. If they arrest and sentence activists because of protests, there will be political prisoners again," he told AFP.

Ye Aung said two grandsons of former dictator Ne Win were among those released Friday. The pair, along with several other members of the family, were convicted of treason in 2002 for allegedly plotting a coup.

Ne Win oversaw Myanmar's dramatic descent into poverty during his 1962-88 rule. He died under house arrest in 2002 after stepping down during mass anti-government demonstrations in 1988 that were brutally crushed.

Arbitrary imprisonment was a hallmark of the junta, which continued to rule until 2011, denying the existence of political prisoners even as it meted out harsh punishments to rights activists, journalists, lawyers and performers.

But the nation has since undergone dramatic change, including the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from long years of house arrest and her election to parliament.

Myanmar freed 56 political prisoners in October -- many linked to armed ethnic minority groups in the northern state of Kachin and the eastern state of Shan -- as the government strives to reach an elusive nationwide peace deal with rebels.

Some 70 were freed in July, many of whom were also from Kachin groups.

As part of the reforms Thein Sein's government has reached tentative peace deals with major armed ethnic minority rebel groups in the country, which has been racked by civil wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1948.

But fighting in Kachin near the northern border with China has continued since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June last year, leaving tens of thousands displaced.

A government official, who asked not to be named, told AFP that identifying political prisoners had become complicated by the inclusion of those involved in the country's armed conflicts.

"There have been some cases of people convicted as arms dealers or bombers who have been recognised as political prisoners," he said.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131115/myanmar-frees-69-political-prisoners-3