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Around 300 people gathered outside Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison on Tuesday as prisoners, including women carrying children, emerged from the jail following an order to reduce most sentences.
But the announcement failed to mention the plight of top dissidents, dashing expectations that Burma’s army-backed government would free more political prisoners as part of recent reformist gestures.
Nyan Win, spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said it was not yet clear whether any of the party’s imprisoned members would be released as a result of the move.
“We were hoping for a real amnesty,” he said.
Burma’s political prisoners include former student protesters, monks, journalists and lawyers and their fate is a key concern of the international community.
Under the order, death sentences will be commuted to life imprisonment, jail terms above 30 years will be reduced to 30 years, those between 20 and 30 years will be cut to 20 years and shorter sentences will be cut by a quarter.
Most high-profile dissidents, like those from a failed 1988 student uprising, are serving decades behind bars so would have little hope of freedom as a result of the order, which was made to honour Independence Day on Wednesday.
A government official told AFP that it was still unclear how many inmates would be freed, but about 800 men and 130 women held in Yangon were set to be released.
Lawyer Phyo Min Thein, brother-in-law of jailed student leader Htay Kywe, slammed the announcement’s focus on “ordinary criminals”.
“If there is another amnesty like this one, it will not help the country,” he said.
Aung Khaing Min, of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said it was “really chaotic” that the release was not in line with statements from some officials, who have indicated recently that more prisoners of conscience would be freed.
“It is not even an amnesty, it is very frustrating,” he told AFP.
Burma’s new nominally civilian government, which in March replaced a long-ruling military junta, has raised hopes in recent months by reaching out to the opposition and the West.
About 200 political detainees were freed in October, but activists estimate there are still between 500 and more than 1,500 prisoners of conscience in Burma’s jails and many key dissidents remain locked up.
These include Gambira, a monk jailed for 63 years for his role in the 2007 cleric-led protests known as the “Saffron Revolution”, and former student leader Min Ko Naing, who is serving a 65-year prison sentence.
Ko Ko Gyi 88 Generation student member [not the leader Ko Ko Gyi who shares the same name] in Rangoon’s Sanchaung township who was released from prison in the previous amnesty in October 2011 said he felt they have been cheated by the government.
“As for the 88 Generation Students, we are more than frustrated.. we feel like being cheated and also our people and the whole world. We were expecting so much, that the [government] would really release our leaders looking for the good of our country,” said Ko Ko Gyi.
The country recently announced plans to hold by-elections on April 1, which could see Suu Kyi enter parliament, although would not threaten the dominance of the military and ruling army-backed party.
Aung Thein, who has provided legal advice in several dissident trials, said the upcoming vote cannot be seen as “meaningful” while political prisoners remain locked up.
“Prisoners of conscience need to be released at this very moment when the political situation is evolving,” he told AFP.