Myanmar releases political prisoners from rebel group

By Shibani Mahtani and Myo Myo

Myanmar’s president on Tuesday released 56 political prisoners, authorities and activists said, mostly from ethnic rebel armies, in line with the government’s promise to release all prisoners of conscience by the end of this year.

The latest wave of prisoners released – many from the Kachin Independence Army – comes just as Myanmar’s government holds peace talks the ethnic minority Kachin Independence Organization in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, aimed at achieving a national ceasefire by the end of the year.

The three-day talks also started on Tuesday, with United Nations special envoy to Myanmar Vijay Nambiar also in attendance.

A national ceasefire is a crucial milestone in Myanmar’s reform process, political analysts say, and will give businesses more confidence in investing in the country, particularly for telecommunications and other service operators who have to set up operations in the ethnic rebel areas.

The Kachin Independence Army has spent decades battling Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, with the aim to achieve autonomy within their state. After a flare-up of violence earlier late last year, the group has been involved in a series of peace talks with Myanmar authorities, working towards a permanent peace agreement and an ending of hostilities between both sides. Tensions have since eased significantly in Kachin state, with U.N. officials allowed to provide aid to the once cut-off area.

Other prisoners released included dozens from the Shan State Army and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), both ethnic Shan groups. The Shan State Army, too, was formed as a resistance group against the Myanmar military, and currently maintains a ceasefire treaty with the country’s armed forces.

Activists welcomed the change, especially encouraged that most of the prisoners released were from ethnic rebel armies.

“Releasing these prisoners will help the national ceasefire process be more effective and set the talks on a positive tone,” said Myint Win Maung, a representative of the League of Political Prisoners.

Even after this most recent release, many other political prisoners remain behind bars. The League of Political Prisoners – an assistance group for former political prisoners, made up of many who spent time in jail for their political associations – estimates that 100 political prisoners are still in detention.

“We hope they will be released soon, since the government promised they will be freed by the end of the year,” Mr. Myint Win Maung added.

Thousands of political prisoners have been freed in batches over the past two years, under President Thein Sein’s administration, a key reform that pushed Western governments to lift their program of sanctions against Myanmar last year. Human rights activists say that the government has to do more to recognize other individuals who are in prison – specifically whistle-blowers who were former government workers – as political prisoners, and grant them similar amnesty.