BANGKOK // Myanmar's military leaders released the country's longest-serving political prisoner yesterday in what activists decried as an attempt to head off criticism of its human rights record at the UN General Assembly this week. The release of Win Tin, 79, who spent 19 years in prison for "subversion", and at least seven other political prisoners came shortly before the first anniversary of the brutal suppression of a peaceful monk-led pro-democracy protest in Yangon in which dozens were killed.
The junta, which has been in power since 1962, had said that 9,002 prisoners would be released as part of a far-reaching amnesty, but it appeared that only four of the more than 2,100 political prisoners were included. Immediately after his release, Win Tin, a prominent journalist and key activist in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, and who has acted as an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained opposition leader, said he would continue his fight for a democratic Myanmar.
"I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country," he told local journalists outside his house in Yangon. Nyan Win, a spokesman for the opposition National League for Democracy, told Agence France-Presse that three other prominent NLD members - May Win Myint, Aung Soe Myint and Than Nyein - had also been freed. Amnesty International in London said a total of seven dissidents were released.
Ms Suu Kyi, whose NLD won a landslide victory in the country's last democratic elections in 1990 that was ignored by the junta, was not among those freed. She has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest. Many analysts believe the releases are timed to help deflect criticism and pressure from the international community at this year's UN General Assembly, which began in New York this week.
On Friday, Ibrahim Gambari, the UN envoy for Myanmar, appealed to Myanmar's ruling generals to release all political prisoners. It would seem that the regime may have been trying to make concessions to the international community for fear that the UN Security Council might resume efforts to impose sanctions on the country for its human rights record and failure to move towards democracy. "The releases were planned to help reduce international pressure," according to Bo Kyi, who runs a Thailand-based organisation for political prisoners in Myanmar. "It is meant primarily for its allies - China, India, Russia and ASEAN - to [help ] defend Myanmar at the UN."
Most analysts and diplomats in Yangon do not believe any more political prisoners will be freed. "While the release of U Win Tin and his fellow prisoners is certainly the best news to come out of Myanmar for a long time, unfortunately they represent less than one per cent of the political prisoners there," Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher, said. "These handful of people should never have been imprisoned in the first place, and there are many, many more."
Amnesty International has said over 2,100 political dissidents are being held in Myanmar, including about 700 who were arrested after last year's "Saffron Revolution". Yesterday's release came as a complete surprise as in the past few weeks the regime has sentenced several students and NLD activists to long prison sentences. Last week, Lu Tin Win was sentenced to two years in jail, on charges of a "disrespectful act towards the state", according to opposition sources. Lu Tin Win, was originally detained in 1999 but released in 2007. He was rearrested on Sept 29 that year at a checkpoint where he was searched and found to have a copy of the book Opinion of 88 Generation Students.
"This is the junta's strategy: release political prisoners, especially when the sentences finish, and rearrest them when the fear they are becoming a threat to the regime," said Bo Kyi. But others feel the regime may have other vested interests in releasing a handful of political prisoners at this point in time. "The release of political prisoners is probably the start of a process of preparations for the elections planned for two years time," Win Min, an academic, said. "The regime knows it must find ways of controlling the outcome without looking too draconian," he said.
The elections, which are part of the country's road map to "disciplined democracy", are scheduled to be held in early 2010. As yet there is no concrete information as to which parties will be allowed to field candidates, and it is unclear whether the NLD will be permitted to compete. The regime recently announced through the state-run media that thousands of prisoners would be released in the run-up to the elections because of their good behaviour. The junta would release 9,002 prisoners as a gesture of "loving kindness and goodwill", reported the state-censored Myanmar Times.
In the weeks to come as the regime plans the scheduled elections, there is likely to be many changes in Myanmar's political scene. However, most of these are likely to be cosmetic. "The military will not make the mistake it did in 1990 - allowing a free and fair election [which the NLD convincingly won]" Win Min said. "But at the moment what it fears most is another uprising on the streets - and Win Tin's release in particular may also be intended to dampen the anger against the regime in the country that is growing and becoming more vociferous every day."