Myanmar will free 452 prisoners, including an unspecified number of dissidents according to the government, in an apparent goodwill gesture days ahead of a historic visit to the former military state by US President Barack Obama.
State media said the prisoners would be freed with the "intent to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship". A Home Ministry official said "prisoners of conscience" would be among them but declined to say how many. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said it was making checks but it had yet to hear of a single political detainee being released.
Families are often told by the authorities to prepare for the release of prisoners who can be in jails in distant provinces, but AAPP representative Bo Kyi said he was not aware of any being given such notice on this occasion. Over the past year, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup.
A semi-civilian government stacked with former generals has allowed elections, eased rules on protests, relaxed censorship and freed some dissidents. The United States has called for the release of all remaining political prisoners but Myanmar has failed to do that. About 700 were freed between May 2011 and July 2012. An amnesty was announced in September but it included only 88 dissidents, the AAPP said, leaving several hundred behind bars.
The timing of the latest amnesty is significant. Obama will become the first US president to visit Myanmar when he travels there during a Nov. 17-20 tour of Southeast Asia that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia. He is due to meet president Thein Sein on Monday but the US president risks criticism for rewarding the new government too soon, especially with political prisoners still behind bars and after security forces failed to prevent ethnic violence in the west of the country.
International human rights activists met senior White House officials in Washington this week to press Obama to take a tough line with leaders in both Myanmar and Cambodia during his Southeast Asia tour. The election of democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar's pariah image and persuade the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of reforms.
The United States eased sanctions on Myanmar this year in recognition of the political and economic change, and many US companies are looking at starting operations in the country located between China and India, with its abundant resources and low-cost labour. Obama has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce US influence across Asia in what officials have described as a policy "pivot" toward the region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Myanmar grew close to China during its decades of isolation, reinforced by Western sanctions over its poor human rights record, but it is now seeking to expand relations with the West. On Tuesday, about half a dozen human rights activists took part in the talks at the White House, which included Samantha Power, a top Obama adviser and outspoken expert on genocide.
Power, considered a "humanitarian hawk" within the administration, wrote a blog on the White House website last week signalling that Obama would use the Myanmar trip to pressure the government to do more on human rights. The activists left the White House meeting satisfied that Obama intended to push hard on human rights and political and economic reform in closed-door talks with the Myanmar president and in his public remarks, including a speech.
(Additional reporting by Andrew RC Marshall in Bangkok; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)