Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Myanmar granted amnesty to more than 6,300 prisoners in a move that may signal even more significant policy changes ahead, said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy.
The announcement yesterday came a day after Kurt Campbell, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Asia, said that Myanmar is experiencing “dramatic developments” and the U.S. is ready to revamp ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
“We are optimistic,” Nyan Win said by phone from Yangon, the former capital, adding that it was unclear how many of the country’s 2,100 political prisoners would be freed. “We hope real changes will be coming soon.”
The amnesty builds on steps taken by Myanmar President Thein Sein to loosen state controls on public discourse since taking power in an election last year that ended five decades of military rule. Western governments are hoping for the release of about 500 political prisoners, said Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy research organization.
Freeing dissidents is “a key benchmark that many in the West have been insisting on,” he said by phone. “If it’s reached, it will put pressure on Western governments who impose sanctions to reconsider those policies and acknowledge that there has been internal progress on political, human rights and economic reforms in Myanmar.”
The U.S. maintains trade and financial sanctions against Myanmar that are reviewed annually. Europe has less stringent restrictions in place.
New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized a declared amnesty in May in which an estimated 77 political prisoners were released. In that move, the government converted death sentences to life imprisonment and reduced all criminal detainments by one year.
The release of 6,359 prisoners is scheduled to start today, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement on state television and radio stations.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded to the reports by saying that the U.S. wants all political prisoners in Myanmar released.
“We’re obviously looking to see who these folks are and, hopefully, it is a full and complete release of all political prisoners,” she said.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Sept. 21 she was “cautiously optimistic” of progress in her native land, where she has spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest.
“We are beginning to see the beginning of change,” she said via satellite during a seminar in New York organized by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
‘Prisoners of Conscience’
Thein Sein, who is visiting India this week, held talks in August with Suu Kyi, who was released from detention 11 months ago, and in September suspended the construction of a $3.6 billion dam being built with China. The government has also stopped censoring news websites and dissident publications, Crisis Group said.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar on Oct. 10 printed an open letter from the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission urging the release of “prisoners of conscience” who pose no threat to “public tranquility.”
The U.S. has concerns about Myanmar’s detention of political prisoners, a lack of dialogue with ethnic groups and past relations with North Korea, said Campbell, who spoke in Bangkok on Oct. 10. Still, recent developments “demand greater attention and focus,” he said.
“We are prepared for a new chapter in our relations,” Campbell said. “We are watching carefully developments on the ground and I think it would be fair to say that we will match their steps with comparable steps.”
Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin told the United Nations General Assembly last month that sanctions should be lifted because his country has “emerged as a new democratic nation.” He pledged to reach out to armed ethnic groups and release more prisoners, according to a UN news service.
Myanmar’s 60 million people are the poorest in Asia, earning about $1.15 per day on average, about a tenth of per capita income in neighboring Thailand, according to Association of Southeast Asian Nations statistics. In recent years, China, India and Thailand have invested in Myanmar’s ports, railways and oil and gas pipelines to gain access to natural resources.
Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand’s biggest construction company, signed an $8.6 billion contract last year with Myanmar’s government to build a deep-sea port and industrial estate. China National Petroleum Corp. started building oil and gas pipelines across the country, and India approved plans for Oil & Natural Gas Corp. and GAIL India Ltd. to invest $1.3 billion in a natural gas project.
Myanmar recently sought advice from the International Monetary Fund to end its multiple exchange rate system and is modernizing its banking system, U Hla Tun, governor of the Bank for Myanmar, said in a Sept. 23 speech at the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF in Washington D.C.
“The government aims at achieving sustainable developments on all fronts through a number of reform measures,” he said. “The major thrust of these measures is to establish transparency and accountability at all levels of government.”
The military retains a quarter of seats in the two houses of Parliament, according to the constitution. Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party, backed by the former ruling junta, won about 80 percent of seats in last year’s election, which was boycotted by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
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