Burma Govt Releases 59 Political Prisoners, Former MMT Shareholder

By Kyaw Phyo Tha & Lawi Weng 23 April 2013

RANGOON—Burma’s government announced that it granted amnesty to 93 prisoners on Tuesday. According a human rights group, there were 59 political prisoners, including 40 Shan rebel soldiers, among the released.

Sonny Swe, a former majority shareholder in The Myanmar Times and the son of a purged Military Intelligence officer, was also released on Tuesday, after having served eight years in prison.

The President Office spokesman Ye Htut said in a post on his Facebook page that a total of 93 people were released under presidential pardon on Tuesday.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) confirmed that 59 persons held for political reasons had been released.

“Nineteen political prisoners were released,” said AAPP joint-secretary Bo Kyi, “40 Shans were also released, along with the political prisoners. They had fought against the government.” He did not specify which Shan militia the men had belonged to.

AAPP said 10 convicts were released from Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison on Tuesday evening, six of whom were being held as political prisoners. It said 13 political prisoners were set free from Thayawady, Myingyan, Pakkoku, Thayet penitentiaries and Mandalay’s Obo Prison.

Bo Kyi welcomed the government’s amnesty, although he said it had failed to implement the decision properly. “The release of the political prisoners should be publicly announced. The government should treat them with dignity,” he said. “They are somewhat like bargaining chips, used by the government to gain some achievements” from the international community.

Bo Kyi said more than 200 political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma.

At the gate of Insein Prison on Tuesday evening, family members and prisoners were overwhelmed with emotions upon seeing each other for the first time in years, although some felt bad for those who remained locked up.

“I am happy to see my family, but there are many of my friends who remain in prison and I am not happy with this,” said Zaw Moe, who was sentenced to a total of 18 years in 2008.

He was accused of planning a supposed bomb attack and affiliating with an “illegal organization,” the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), and several other charges.

“I know my friends have painful feelings now, as they were not among the released,” he said, adding that he knew that more 100 political prisoners were still inside Insein Prison.“These people did nothing for themselves and they did for all the people,” said Zaw Moe, adding that all should be released.

Min Zaw, an ethnic Mon, said he was sentenced in 2011 for an alleged attempt to blow up a bridge in Phyapon Township in Irrawaddy Division. He added that he was in fact just passing through the area at the time to visit his in-laws.

For Min Zaw, his release was bittersweet as his wife and son had died while he was locked up by the government. “I just want to see my mother and I don’t want to talk about my family,” he said, holding back his tears.

Sonny Swe was among a group of prisoners released from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State on Tuesday, after having served 8 years, his wife Yamin said in a brief phone call, adding that he would return to Rangoon on Wednesday.

Sonny Swe was sentenced to 14 years in prison in April 2005 for not following the rules of the government censorship board. At the time of his arrest, he was a 51-percent shareholder at The Myanmar Times, while remaining shares were owned by Australian companies linked to businessman Ross Dunkley.

Dunkley, the Times’ current managing director, founded the English-language newspaper after he cut a deal with hated Military Intelligence (MI) in 2000.

When the MI was purged in 2005 by the then junta leader Than Shwe, Sonny Swe, a son of senior MI officer Brig-Gen Thein Swe, was also arrested. Tin Tun Oo, a media person with close connection to the junta, took over his shares in the Times.

Dunkley said in a phone call that he was delighted that his old business partner had finally been released. “It’s been more than 3000 days too long, for something he didn’t do. It couldn’t be a day too soon,” he said, adding that he had been in contact with Swe’s family throughout his imprisonment.

Dunkley said he would meet up with Swe as soon as he arrived in Rangoon on Tuesday and that he had plans to involve Swe again in his business operations at The Times. “The sooner he can get his 51 percent share back, the better,” he added.

(Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze)