Myanmar releases 56 political prisoners on eve of regional summit

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NEW DELHI - Myanmar on Tuesday released 56 political prisoners, according to local media quoting government officials, part of a pledge to free all political detainees by the end of the year.

The prisoners, including more than a dozen from Myanmar's northern Kachin state, were released at 11 a.m., Aung Min, a representative of the prime minister's office, reportedly said at the start of three days of peace talks in the state. Government troops have been fighting with ethnic Kachin rebels since a 17-year ceasefire collapsed in mid-2011.

Prisoner rights groups, former dissidents and human rights activists welcomed the amnesty by Myanmar, also known as Burma, but said a lot more needs to be done.

"This is good news for all of us, for the people of Burma," said Tint Swe, a former lawmaker and chairman of Burma Center Delhi, a civic group. "But there are still a lot of problems, including new people being arrested for demonstrating."

News of the release came before a two-day forum starting Wednesday in Brunei that will be attended by more than a dozen heads of state from Southeast Asian and Pacific nations, including Myanmar President Thein Sein. Human rights activists say Myanmar has a history of announcing prisoner releases just before high-profile foreign meetings in order to buy goodwill and blunt foreign criticism.

"It's entirely within the pattern to parse these political prisoners out as bargaining chips when they want to improve their international image," said Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group. "This trick is getting a bit worn."

The number of political prisoners still detained in Myanmar is a matter of some dispute, given differences in what constitutes a political prisoner and poor record-keeping in the nation's network of 42 prisons and 109 labor camps. Most groups place the figure at somewhere between 130 and 200, down from an estimated 2,100 several years ago.

Myanmar's military junta, which ruled the country with an iron grip for decades, long maintained that it held no political prisoners, only common criminals. Thein Sein released political prisoners in April, as Europe was lifting economic sanctions and in advance of a trip to Washington, and vowed during a speech in London in July to end the detention of "prisoners of conscience" by the end of the year.

However, the releases don't appear to include those detained recently under a new law known as Section 18, which prohibits public demonstrations without police approval, human rights groups said.

Thein Sein may hope Tuesday's prisoner release will blunt tough questions in Brunei over continuing sectarian violence between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. Last week, Thein Sein made a three-day visit to the western Rakhine state in a bid to stem bloodshed.

"Our international reputation was damaged," the president said of the recent carnage. "We shouldn't allow these things to happen again."

The president risks seeing negative publicity over recent attacks against Muslims overshadow the well-received political reforms he's fostered since the end of military rule in 2011. Approximately 250 people have been killed and more than 140,000 left homeless over the past year because of Muslim-Buddhist fighting.

"It's very complex, not simply a question of human rights or violence," said Tint Swe. "It's more than just problems between Buddhists and Muslims. There's worry the ruling party, authorities, are exploiting it for political purposes, to increase their vote bank."

Muslim Rohingya are officially stateless, although many have lived in Myanmar for generations. Rohingya and other Muslim communities account for about 4 percent of Myanmar's population of 60 million.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 180,000 Rohingya are still housed in camps, essentially unable to leave, facing shortages of medicine, schools and other essentials.

"President Thein Sein's been talking about reconciliation, but his government has done precious little," Robertson said. "The Rohingya were supposed to be allowed to return home, but the local government has obviously decided it's too much trouble."

Since the nominal end of a half century of military rule in 2011, Thein Sein's administration has eased media restrictions, freed hundreds of prisoners, allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run successfully for parliament and ended a ban on campaigning by her National League for Democracy party.

But the military still retains inordinate influence in the country. Many lawmakers are former generals or ex-junta officials. And Myanmar's controversial constitution guarantees that 25 percent of all parliamentary seats are held by the military, effectively barring the popular Suu Kyi from becoming president.

Since she was elected in April 2012, Suu Kyi has campaigned for more effective laws, constitutional reform and anti-corruption measures.

"She's doing her level best," Tint Swe said. "But many of these have been in place for so long, 60 years, it's difficult to change."