Burma Frees Thousands of Prisoners in Advance of Polls

By The Irrawaddy 30 July 2015

RANGOON — A total of 6,966 prisoners were granted a presidential amnesty on Thursday, Burma’s Ministry of Information has announced, though it is still unclear how many of the men and women freed were considered prisoners of conscience.

A statement published on the ministry’s website said the thousands of men and women were granted amnesty “for the sake of stability and durable peace of the state, national reconciliation, on humanitarian grounds and to enable them to take part in the political process.”

According to the statement, 210 of the prisoners were foreign nationals. Chinese state-run Xinhua has reported that 155 Chinese nationals found guilty of illegal logging were among those freed.

It remains unclear whether New Zealand national Philip Blackwood—who was controversially imprisoned for insulting religion early this year—has been released.

The remaining Burmese nationals were released “with a view to turning them into citizens who would understand the benevolence and goodwill of the state,” the ministry said.

Thousands of prisoners have been released since the reformist government of President Thein Sein took office in 2011, though a promise to free all political prisoners by the end of 2013 went unmet.

By late June of this year, the number of political prisoners in Burma was as high as 169, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The group said there were an additional 446 activists awaiting trial for political activity, including student demonstrators and farmers’ rights activists.

Several outspoken activists and parliamentary hopefuls have also faced threatened or real legal action in the months leading up to a landmark general election set for Nov. 9, prompting criticism that the courts have been used to silence opposition voices.

AAPP director Bo Kyi, who served on a semi-governmental political prisoner scrutiny committee until it was reconstituted earlier this year, told The Irrawaddy that he does not expect to see many prisoners of conscience among those amnestied on Thursday.

“Around 40 or 50 political prisoners serving shorter prison sentences—one or two years—are likely to be on the list,” Bo Kyi said. “We [AAPP] did not receive any information about the release in advance, so the exact number [of political prisoners] can’t be confirmed. The ones who are now on trial cannot be freed.”

This article was updated at 12:30 pm on July 30, 2015