Mass prisoner release in Burma

If we were issuing a reward for most improved government of the year then Burma would sweep the board, hands down.

(As opposed to hands up – see this tweet to Nick Clegg, one of the many public figures who took part in our "Hands up for Burma" campaign for prisoners of conscience in 2010.)

Following the announcement last week that Aung San Suu Kyi will be standing for the Burmese parliament in the next elections, and then the news at the start of this week that a ceasefire had been agreed with the ethnic Karen armed group, today a new round of prisoner releases saw some of the most influential political prisoners return home.

The roll call of released prisoners reads like a who’s who of Amnesty’s priority actions from the last few years. We can confirm at least 130 political prisoners were released today, including well-known dissidents Htay Kywe, U Khun Htun Oo, Min Ko Naing and U Gambira.

The prisoner amnesty is the second this year and the fourth under Burma’s post-elections government, bringing the total number of political prisoners released to at least 477.

There is a brilliant piece in the Guardian about the reunions taking place across the country. It is very moving to hear of loved ones snatched away in the middle of the night by feared secret police – to be returned just as unexpectedly five, ten, 20 years later. Many of the relatives of the prisoners released today had resigned themselves to separation, with activists facing sentences of up to 65 years.

One of those who had been given a staggering sentence of 65 years for his part in organising peaceful student protest against the military government, is the father of Waihnin Pwint Thon. Her father, Mya Aye, one of the notorious Generation '88 leaders, was released this morning and she was able to speak to him on the phone from London. You can listen to her speaking about her delight on the Today programme here.

Asked if he would now be careful, keep a low profile and perhaps abandon his activism and work for democracy in order to prevent re-arrest, Waihnin almost laughed as she dismissed the idea: “He suggested that we progress our campaigning together”, she said. With that kind of defiance, it's clear that despite what they have suffered in Burma's appalling jails, the country's human rights activists are determined to see Burma move toward genuine democracy.

But with some political prisoners still remaining locked up, and with the very laws which put people like Mya Aye in prison in the first place still in place, this could always be a false dawn. The Burmese government needs to go the full hog and dismantle the entire apparatus of suppression.

Now though, is a time to celebrate. I was reminded of the pathos of Waihnin telling me before the last set of releases that her mother did not know if her father would be coming home, but had made his favourite meal just in case. That time he was not among the released, and she presumably ate the meal alone. Finally, this time, he’ll be back in his own home.

As we said today, this release is a major step forward, but the gates must be opened even wider to all remaining prisoners of conscience.

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