Burma’s new government began releasing 514 prisoners, the latest in a series of amnesties. The release comes as Burma's two top leaders – President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kui – prepare for separate visits to the US.
The president’s website and state television said the prisoner release was being conducted in part to “obtain good relations with neighboring and foreign countries.” Some of those released are foreign citizens, state-run television said.
Reuters news agency reported that the amnesty included at least 80 political detainees, according to activists. Bo Kyi, secretary-general of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thai-based group that tracks detainees, said on Tuesday his group had so far found 88 political prisoners were freed, possibly more.
Ba Myo Thein from the Group for Freedom of Political Prisoners said on Tuesday 84 dissidents, including 24
Buddhist monks, were released. In Washington, the US State Department reacted cautiously to news of the amnesty, saying it would monitor events.
"We are watching developments of the prisoner release closely and will work carefully to verify if any political prisoners are released," said a spokesperson. "The United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners."
Among those freed was Shwe Htoo, 68, a retired school teacher who was jailed for 42 years for attempting to mobilize protesters in 1998.
A prison department official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said 399 of the 514 included in the amnesty were foreigners, including 84 from Thailand and 18 from China, mostly jailed for immigration offences. He was unable to clarify whether any of those freed were political prisoners. "We don't have a category for 'prisoners of conscience' in our country," he said.
Suu Kyi is peaking on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the first leg of her visit to the US. She will receive the US Congressional Medal on Wednesday, the nation’s highest award. She is expected to meet with President Barrack Obama this week, according to reports, and meet with key US officials. The administration is also seeking to lift a ban on imports from Burma, setting the stage for normal relations with the once pariah state.
Suu Kyi will also travel to New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Indiana and California.
Since Thein Sein’s civilian administration took over the country in April 2010, it has released more than 600 political prisoners.
Before news of the prisoner release on Monday, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an organization based in Thailand that tracks political prisoners, estimated that 400 political prisoners remained under detention.