Myanmar is called insincere on political prisoners

Sep 18, 2012, 11:05 AM EDT

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's limited releases of political prisoners show the government is insincere in its much-lauded democratic reforms and is using its hundreds of detainees to gain further concessions by Western nations, activists said Tuesday.

The latest amnesty announced Monday covers more than 500 prisoners, but less than one-fifth are political detainees. Opposition groups and rights activists say Myanmar still holds several hundred political prisoners.

"I am not happy because other colleagues remain in prison. The government should release all political prisoners," said Nyan Tun, a farmer from delta who was freed from Thayarwaddy prison.

The opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi said it confirmed at least 87 political detainees were among the 514 prisoners granted amnesty. Other groups tracking prisoners gave similar totals, based on information from the freed prisoners, their comrades and their families.

President Thein Sein's government has made freedom for political prisoners a centerpiece of its reform policies, which come after almost five decades of military rule ended last year. Western nations have eased their crippling economic and diplomatic sanctions in response, but Myanmar hopes for an end to the sanctions entirely to kick-start the country's moribund economy.

The information ministry said the prisoners were released so they can participate in nation-building and to help maintain friendly ties with neighboring countries. A prison department official contacted by phone Tuesday confirmed that 399 foreigners were freed under the amnesty.

The official was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity. Thailand's Foreign Ministry said in a statement 83 of those released are Thais who were arrested this year for border encroachment.

The latest amnesty came a week before Thein Sein is to travel to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, where he will be able to tout his reforms on an international stage.

"I think political prisoners are bargaining chips for Thein Sein's policies," Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said.

He said if Thein Sein was sincere in his desire for reform and reconciliation, his government needs to officially acknowledge it holds political prisoners and free them unconditionally. Myanmar has long insisted all prisoners it holds are criminals.