Myanmar promises prisoner amnesty

AP News
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Posted: Sep 27, 2011 7:08 PM
Myanmar promises prisoner amnesty

Military-dominated Myanmar says its recent democratic reforms are irreversible and has promised a prisoner amnesty in the near future.

Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday that talks last month between Myanmar's president and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi were intended to put aside differences and find common grounds to cooperate.

The minister urged nations to lift economic sanctions.

In November Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years. The new government is nominally civilian but remains dominated by the military, which has ruled since 1962.

Western nations are urging Myanmar to free its more than 2,000 political prisoners and reconcile with Suu Kyi, whose party won 1990 elections but was barred from taking power. The party boycotted the November poll, saying the rules governing it were unfair.

Wanna Maung Lwin gave no details about the planned amnesty, other than that it would happen "at an appropriate time in the near future."

"We hope the near future will come very soon," said British Ambassador to the U.N. Mark Lyall Grant, after a meeting later Tuesday of the so-called Friends of Myanmar, a group of about 15 interested Western and Asian nations.

In his address, Wanna Maung Lwin referred to a May amnesty granted by President Thein Sein that he said led to the release of 20,000 prisoners by the end of July.

Western nations were, however, disappointed, as only a few dozen political detainees were reportedly freed.

Another amnesty could be well-timed. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is vying to win the support of neighboring governments for its bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. ASEAN leaders may reach a decision at a summit this November.

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa of Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, said that nations attending the Friends meeting had acknowledged recent developments in Myanmar, but "there's an expectation that there's more to come."

While welcoming the government's allowing Suu Kyi to travel the country, Lyall Grant said the Nobel laureate's National League for Democracy should be allowed to register again as a political party. The British envoy also called for an end to human rights abuses by the Myanmar military against the ethnic minority Shan and Kachin.

International human rights groups remain skeptical of the changes in Myanmar and are calling for a U.N.-led international commission of inquiry into allegations of war crimes.

"Burma's foreign minister would be more convincing if the government released all political prisoners and held security forces accountable for the brutal suppression of monks and peaceful protesters exactly four years ago," Elaine Pearson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said by email Tuesday.

Myanmar's military crushed mass protests for democracy led by Buddhist monks in September 2007. Several dozen people were believed killed and many more jailed.

On Monday, democracy activists in Myanmar's main city of Yangon tested the new government's avowed tolerance for dissent by gathering peacefully to mark the protest anniversary. They were allowed to gather at a central landmark but harassed in other parts of the city.