RANGOON — President Thein Sein reiterated over the weekend a pledge to free all remaining political prisoners by the end of this year, in his first-ever meeting with leaders of Burma’s pro-democracy 88 Generation Students group.
Many members of the 88 Generation Students played a crucial role in organizing the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subsequently imprisoned under the former military regime.
“President Thein Sein said he is aiming to free all political prisoners by the end of this year, and he requested that we cooperate in the process,” said Htay Kywe, an 88 Generation Students leader who attended the meeting on Sunday in Naypyidaw.
Thein Sein has freed several hundreds of political prisoners since coming to office in March 2011. In July, during his first official visit to the United Kingdom, he pledged to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of this year.
“Since there are political prisoners still remaining behind bars, and some are still being arrested, we still need to discuss with them [the government] about how to solve this problem,” 88 Generation Students leader Jimmy told The Irrawaddy.
Members of the pro-democracy group have previously held talks with the government’s chief peace negotiator, Minister Aung Min, as well as Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, but prior to this weekend they had never met with Thein Sein.
Aung Min also attended the meeting in Naypyidaw, as did Union Minister Soe Thein and Immigration Minister Khin Yee.
According to the 88 Generation Students leaders, the three-hour discussion focused broadly on the national reconciliation process, as the country transitions from nearly half a century of military rule. Other topics included the peace process with ethnic groups, land conflicts and economic development.
Thein Sein during the meeting reportedly said that he wanted to allow broader participation in the national reconciliation process and peace talks.
“Now we want to change this culture of politic to a culture of negotiation over disagreements and cooperating in sectors where we can work together,” Jimmy said. “Because we decided during the Silver Jubilee of ‘88 that we would work with whoever wishes to work for the improvement of the country. President Thein Sein was of the same opinion.”
Last month, 88 Generation leaders helped organized a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy protests. Thousands of people attended three days of events in Rangoon, including Aung Min and other government officials.
Thein Sein’s willingness to reform after decades of government mismanagement should be welcomed, said 88 Generation Students leaders who attended the Naypyidaw meeting. But they added that it was premature to say that Burma had already transformed.
“We can’t say we are changed democratically. This is just a transition period to democracy. The process of reforms must be solid, to create a foundation for the future,” said Htay Kywe.
“He [Thein Sein] seems to understand the mismanagement of the past administration. He said he wants to provide hope and reassurance for the future. He also said that the real change of the country would be after 2015, so he wants to lay the finest foundation of change before that.”
Htay Kywe said the meeting with the president was a positive—but early—step.
“This is the first step to build back trust between us, because for many years we have been opposed to each other and the government has been one sided. We talked about many issues, but more discussion is needed to carry on for better results.”