Cover-Up Democracy of Burma

Rangoon, Burma: Myanmar announced on Monday that it is releasing 514 prisoners under a new amnesty that reportedly includes more than 80 political detainees and some foreigners.

The Information Ministry did not name the prisoners, so it was unclear how many political detainees were among them, yet more than 80 had so far been identified by fellow activists at the time of publication.

The amnesty announcement came the same day that Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Burma’s government to immediately release all remaining political prisoners and lift travel and other restrictions on those who have already been freed. At least 300-500 political detainees are believed to remain behind bars.

The New York-based group also asked that independent international monitors be allowed access to prisons to allow a full accounting of all remaining political prisoners.

The government of President Thein Sein has made freedom for political prisoners a centerpiece of its reform policies, seeking international favor after almost five decades of repressive army rule. Earlier amnesties helped convince Western nations to ease sanctions they had imposed against the previous military regime.

The latest release comes a week before Thein Sein is to travel to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. The ministry said the prisoners were released so they can participate in nation-building, and to help maintain friendly ties with neighboring countries.

“If the release of these prisoners is just because of the trip to the US then that is not a good reason,” added Tate Naing. The Burmese government only usually offers an amnesty for prisoners to mark special national celebrations and religious events.

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had estimated that around 330 political detainees remained jailed in Burma, officially called Myanmar.

In July, the government granted an amnesty to 80 prisoners including more than 20 political detainees.

“While another prisoner amnesty is welcome in principle, like everyone else we’re left waiting to see the list before we assess how many political prisoners are included, what it means and how significant it is,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of HRW, said in a statement.

“The problem is there is a lack of transparency from the Burma government about who is a political prisoner, where they are, and how many are left—and to date, our recommendation that the Burma government work with the international community to devise a clear and transparent process to access, assess and immediately release political prisoners has fallen on deaf ears,” he said.

The group said the Home Affairs Ministry “has refused to issue passports to many former political prisoners, including democracy and human rights activists, public interest lawyers, and journalists.” Some have also been prevented from resuming their university studies, it added.

Journalists who are no longer officially banned from entering Burma are also still not able to get visas to enter the country despite president Thein Sein’s government is claiming to have a democratic transforming country, according to a veteran journalist who spent more than two decades on a government blacklist.

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has covered Burma for decades, said that his own attempts to return to the country since being taken off the blacklist at the end of last month have so far yielded no results.

“In the beginning they replied to my emails, but the only thing they said was that the application was on the minister’s desk. Then they even stopped replying to my emails,” said Lintner.

He added that four other journalists he knows have met with a similar response, despite being taken off the blacklist.

Lintner said that he has actually applied three times since the new quasi-civilian government introduced reforms early last year: once last December, and twice in August of this year, including once after the government released a list of names of those no longer banned from entering on Aug. 30.

The Thailand-based journalist, who has written several books on Burma and other Asian countries, was first put on the blacklist in 1985.

The government first announced on Aug. 28, 2012 that it was removing more than 2,000 names from its list of 6,000 foreign and Burmese nationals regarded by the former military junta as potential threats to state stability.

Among the foreigners were journalists Denis Gray of The Associated Press, Andrew Marshall of Reuters, veteran British journalist John Pilger and former CNN anchorman Riz Khan.

Marshall, who was detained and deported in 2008 for secretly reporting on Cyclone Nargis, previously told The Irrawaddy that he was interested in finding out who the thousands of others still on the blacklist are.

Despite recent reforms under the administration of President Thein Sein, critics note that the government continues to restrict basic freedoms.

Last weekend, Min Ko Naing, a prominent former political prisoner, canceled a planned trip to the US to receive an award to show solidarity with more than a dozen fellow activists whose applications for passports had been denied.

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