YANGON, Myanmar >> A government-appointed human rights body on Sunday urged Myanmar’s president to release political prisoners or transfer them to prisons close to their families, signaling such action may be imminent.
Speculation is considerable that a new amnesty covering some of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners will be issued this week, perhaps as early as Monday.
A comprehensive release of political detainees would boost Myanmar’s already active diplomatic efforts to improve relations with the United States, which shunned the previous military regime because of its poor human rights record and failure to allow free and democratic politics.
Myanmar’s three state-owned newspapers published an open letter Sunday from National Human Rights Commission chairman Win Mra calling on President Thein Sein to grant amnesty "as a reflection of magnanimity," or to transfer political prisoners in remote prisons to facilities with easy access for their family members.
The letter’s publication is significant because the tightly controlled newspapers closely reflect government positions. An amnesty of 6,359 prisoners in October happened the same day state-run newspapers published a similar appeal.
A prisoner release in the next few days is also anticipated because a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, begins Thursday in Bali, Indonesia. Myanmar is seeking to chair ASEAN in 2014, and the release of political prisoners would be seen as a positive development favoring its bid, which is likely to be decided at this week’s summit. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also be there to meet regional leaders.
"It appears there are real changes taking place on the ground, and we support these early efforts at reform," Clinton told reporters Friday in Honolulu at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. "We want to see the people of Burma able to participate fully in the political life of their own country." The military changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989, but supporters of the country’s pro-democracy movement prefer to use the old name.
Myanmar’s nominally civilian government, which took power in March, has declared its intention to liberalize the hard-line polices of the junta that preceded it. It has taken some fledgling steps, such as easing censorship, legalizing labor unions, suspending an unpopular, China-backed dam project and beginning talks with Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement.
In his open letter, Win Mra requested that the president grant amnesty "to those prisoners convicted for breach of existing laws, who do not pose a threat to the stability of the state and public tranquility."
The appeal clearly referred to political prisoners, although the term was not used. The government asserts that it holds no political prisoners, only people convicted under criminal law.
"If for reasons of maintaining peace and stability, certain prisoners cannot as yet be included in the amnesty, the commission would like to respectfully submit that consideration be made for transferring them to prisons with easy access for their family members," the letter said.
In recent years, political detainees who in the past would have been held at Insein Prison in the main city of Yangon have instead been sent to jails in remote parts of the country in an apparent effort to make it difficult for them to communicate with the outside.
The actual number of prisoners is disputed by the Human Rights Commission, which says that while the U.N. Secretary-General and a number of countries claim there are nearly 2,000 prisoners of conscience, the actual figure is only 500, of which at least 200 had been released under October’s amnesty.
About 70 political prisoners were also released under a large-scale amnesty for convicts in May. Myanmar has more than 60,000 prisoners in 42 prisons and 109 labor camps.
Ohn Kyaing, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and a leader of its humanitarian support group, said it was difficult to arrive at a precise figure, because the numbers "vary according to criteria used to define the status of prisoners of conscience."
He added, however that his network is aiding the families of more than 700 political prisoners, and that there could be families of other prisoners who had not contacted the NLD.
Long-term detainees who remain behind bars include prominent student activists, such as Min Ko Naing, who are serving 65-year prison sentences and politicians from ethnic minority parties, such as Shan leader Hkun Htun Oo, who have sentences of more than 80 years.
"The authorities have not contacted us but we heard that another round of amnesty is coming soon. Our hopes are high again but nothing is certain here," one of Min Ko Naing’s sisters told The Associated Press by phone.