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Pro-democracy prisoners remain defiant after release

Political prisoners released by junta vowed to continue fighting for democracy and expressing concern for colleagues still behind bars.

india Updated: Jan 04, 2007 11:58 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

Political prisoners released under an Independence Day amnesty by Myanmar's military government remained defiant, vowing on Thursday to continue fighting for democracy and expressing concern for colleagues still behind bars.

Myanmar's ruling junta on Wednesday freed nearly 3,000 prisoners, including at least 20 charged with political crimes, ahead of celebrations on Thursday marking the 59th anniversary of the country's independence from Britain.

"I will not surrender. I will continue with my duties," said Than Htay, 60, of the National League for Democracy, who was released from a prison in northern Myanmar where he was serving a five-year sentence along with his son, who his father hoped might yet be released in coming days.

Than Htay and his son Than Tun Oo, also given a five-year term, were charged with violating import-export regulations, a common accusation leveled against political activists.

Than Htay was also convicted of violating press laws.

Than Htay spoke on the telephone from Mandalay in central Myanmar where he was attending a small Independence Day celebration organised by the NLD, which is headed by detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Although I have been released, I am not happy because my colleagues remain detained under wretched prison conditions.

Many of them are in poor health, some are very old and several have been in prison for nearly two decades," said Zaw Win, 47, another league member who was sentenced to a 10-year term in 1999.

He traveled from Tharyarwaddy prison, 120 kilometres north of Yangon, to attend celebrations at the NLD headquarters in this city.

Human rights groups estimate the junta is holding more than 1,100 political prisoners who are routinely tortured and held under abysmal conditions.

The government has denied the charges but since December 2005 has barred the International Red Cross from visiting its extensive network of prisons and labour camps.

State media said Wednesday that the ruling military council granted amnesty to 2,831 prisoners "whose moral behavior and spiritual values have improved and changed for the better".

The government often grants amnesties to mark important national days but most of those released are petty thieves and criminals with very few political prisoners having been set free.

Win Mya Mya of the NLD said she knew of about 20 political prisoners who were released but did not know if this was the total number.

Suu Kyi, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, remains under house detention and a number of senior members of her party are still serving long prison sentences.

The junta seized power after a bloody 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators led by Suu Kyi.

In 1990, it refused to step down when Suu Kyi's party won a landslide election.

"I pray for the release of all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi and I will work for their freedom," vowed Aung Naing, a 36-year-old activist who was serving an eight-year sentence.

"It will be disastrous if the Red Cross pulls out of the country. Prisoners are now facing health problems because of shortage of medicine and prompt medical care."

The Switzerland-based International Committee of the Red Cross has not threatened to pull out but some activists fear it may do so since its activities in the country have been severely curtailed over the past few years.

First Published: Jan 04, 2007 11:58 IST

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