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Myanmar's Thein Sein pledges to release all political prisoners

LONDON — The Myanmar government will release all its political prisoners by the end of the year, President Thein Sein promised in a speech at the prestigious Chatham House think-tank in London.

President of Myanmar Thein Sein, left, meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron in 10 Downing Street, London, Monday, July 15, 2013. Photo: AP

President of Myanmar Thein Sein, left, meets with British Prime Minister David Cameron in 10 Downing Street, London, Monday, July 15, 2013. Photo: AP

LONDON — The Myanmar government will release all its political prisoners by the end of the year, President Thein Sein promised in a speech at the prestigious Chatham House think-tank in London.

He also expressed hopes that a nationwide ceasefire could be agreed with insurgents in “the coming weeks” to end ethnic conflicts that have been raging for the last six decades.

“I guarantee to you that by the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,” he told the audience on Monday, adding that “thousands of prisoners” had already been freed. However, he did not specify how many were still imprisoned. A special committee, which includes former prisoners, was reviewing the remaining cases, he said.

Mr Thein Sein also said he would show “zero tolerance” for ethnically driven violence in Myanmar. Deadly extremist attacks by the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have raised international concern.

“I promise you that we will take a zero-tolerance approach to any renewed violence and against those who fuel ethnic hatred,” he said.

He said his government had negotiated ceasefires with all but one of the major armed groups in Myanmar. The remaining group is an insurgent organisation seeking independence for Myanmar’s northern-most state of Kachin in the Himalayan foothills adjoining China.

“Very possibly, over the coming weeks, we will have a nationwide ceasefire and the guns will go silent everywhere in Myanmar for the very first time in over 60 years,” he said.

Mr Thein Sein was on his first official visit to Britain, Myanmar’s former colonial power, where he also met British Prime Minister David Cameron in an effort to stimulate trade and investment in his country. He was scheduled to visit France as part of his four-day visit to the two countries this week.

It has been two years since Mr Thein Sein’s civilian government ended the military’s repressive monopoly on power. Under him, Myanmar has been slowly emerging from a prolonged era of isolation and repression, with new freedoms of expression, a new constitution and elections.

But there has been little talk of the political dissidents who once filled Myanmar’s prisons or how many remain incarcerated. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was the country’s most famous former political prisoner, spent a total of 15 years under house arrest before she was released in 2010.

Analysts TODAY spoke to said that Mr Thein Sein’s comments were a strategic move to show the international community that its domestic issues were under control amid an increasing interest in foreign investment to the country.

“It was aimed at blocking possible foreign intervention in Myanmar’s domestic affairs which could undermine the regime’s stability,” said Dr Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit, a research fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Dr Kaewkamol noted that Myanmar’s ethnic minorities tend to live in resource-rich zones which have been attracting foreign investment from several countries including the United States, Japan, China and India, and the government is wary of foreign parties using human rights concerns to intervene in its domestic politics.

On the ceasefire agreement, Dr Kaewkamol noted the difficulty of coming up with “agreeable contract terms” between the Myanmar government and the minority groups. There are also “internal disagreements among the leaders of the Myanmar’s armed forces” which could ultimately thwart a nationwide ceasefire, added Dr Kaewkamol.

Still, Dr Tin Maung Maung Than, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, noted that the Myanmar government has been having “off-the-record negotiations” with the Kachin insurgents. “The fact that (Mr Thein Sein) is announcing this, they must have tangible results that they have not yet disclosed,” he said.

Similarly, Dr Tin felt that the Myanmar government would keep its word to release all the political prisoners. “I don’t think the government takes these promises lightly. If they’ve made these promises, they must be able to back them up,” he said.

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