Burma's junta announced on Thursday that it had freed 31 political prisoners, including seven pro-democracy opposition members, in one of the largest of a series of releases announced over the past two years.
Dissidents began being released from custody in small batches early last year, soon after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi began talks with the military regime aimed at ending a 14-year political deadlock.
A government spokesman said that the detainees, including the group belonging to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), were released from various jails early Thursday.
"They are all in good health and reunited with their respective families," he said in a statement. "The government of Myanmar will continue to release individuals who will cause no harm to the community nor threaten the existing peace, stability and unity of the nation," he added.
During an interview with VOA, National League for Democracy spokesperson U Lwin provided a list of seven NLD members who were among the 31 political prisoners released. Six NLD members are 60 and above and one is an NLD youth. The names he read are listed below:
1. U Maung Maung Kyaw Aye (Dawbon)
2. U Khin Maung (Kyuatada)
3. U Kyaw San (Kemindine youth)
4. U Lwin Oo (Kyautada)
5. U Han Nyunt (Kamayut)
6. U Thaung Oo (Kamayut)
7. Kyaw Zeya
U Lwin also said that the other 24 prisoners are students arrested for their political activities. He also acknowledged that such political prisoner releases by the Burmese military often take place before visits made by UN human rights rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. He also confirmed Amnesty International's estimate that there are 180 NLD members still under custody.
U Lwin spoke to VOA about the recent death of U Sai Phat, a Shan NLD Vice-Chairman and Central Committee member on October 10th who died after being transferred from his prison cell to an eastern Shan State town. U Sai Phat was arrested in an eastern Shan State town on September 13, and charged under the 1950 Emergency Provision Act for organizing National League for Democracy (NLD) activities in Shan State. U Lwin said U Sai Phat was assigned to Kengtung--a very crucial area for NLD--and was arrested while working with local farmers. "U Sai Phat carried out his duties to the best of his ability," stated U Lwin. However, the military authorities accused him of inciting dissent against the government and later charged him with the Emergency Provision Act. His trial date was set for Oct 11th.
U Sai Phat was last seen on October 27th by his friends and family at his mother's funeral, and appeared to be in good health. On October 9th, U Sai Phat's son notified National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesperson U Lwin that his father suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized. Prior to sending an NLD lawyer to represent U Sai Phat on his trial date, U Lwin was informed that U Sai Phat had sadly passed away early October 10th--a day before his trial date. "It was a sudden death, for reason we still cannot determine as yet," stated U Lwin. Opinions are divided on the nature of U Sai Phat's death between liver cirrosis and malaria. However, according to U Lwin, both ailments should not cause sudden death. News reports noted U Sai Phat is the third political prisoner to die in custody since July.
U Lwin told VOA that he hopes other releases will follow--in particular, releasing those political prisoners who are not only due to be released soon, but also those who are old and in ill health. For example, U Maung Maung Kyaw Aye, a NLD member who is over sixty, has lost most of his teeth, suffers from high blood pressure and bouts of fainting spells, was included in the recent batch of released political prisoners. Sources said that shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, U Sai Phat and members of the Kyaing Tone area NLD branch had begun to actively participate in party organizational work. And that he had been an active party member since the party's inception in 1988.
Other prisoners who died in detention since July are Mai Aik Pan, leader of the Palaung State Liberation Front (PSLF) who died in Moulmein Prison in Mon State under mysterious condition in July and U Aung May Thu who died in Rangoon General Hospital in September.
Prisoner releases, which until July have been restricted to small groups of less than 10, are typically linked to important events or high-level visits to Yangon.
The latest move comes a week after Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer made a one-day visit to the country in a bid to advance reconciliation talks between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi which had recently stalled.
Downer said after his visit that he had stressed to the military government the need to free an estimated 1,300-1,500 political prisoners still being held in the country's jails.
The Australian minister was the first senior member of a Western government to travel to Burma in several years.
Another batch of 18 prisoners was released last month to coincide with the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York which Burma's Foreign Minister Win Aung attended. And at the end of July, 32 were freed ahead of a gathering of regional foreign ministers in Brunei.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was herself released from 19 months under house arrest in May, has said her party's top priority is to secure the freedom of all political prisoners in the country's jails. She suggested last month that a mass release would be a precondition to her beginning a fully fledged political dialogue with the Yangon junta aimed at resolving disallowed 1998 elections which the NLD won in a landslide.
But analysts say the government is wary of large releases, which they fear could spark public celebrations or protests against the regime.
This is one of the largest in a recent series of releases, and comes one week before a United Nations human rights envoy is set to visit. Brazilian academic Paulo Sergio Pinheiro is due in Burma for a 10-day visit on October 17th.
Mr. Pinheiro has visited the country three times, but this will be the first time since the release from house arrest last May of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's government says it invited him.
In April, the U-N envoy submitted a report to the United Nations, saying conditions had improved for political prisoners in Burma's jail. He called for the immediate release of all political detainees.
This information is supplied by AFP and Reuters.