The Debate

Myanmar Pardons Political Prisoners As Reforms Continue

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein began to deliver on a promise made earlier in 2013 by freeing political prisoners.

Myanmar Pardons Political Prisoners As Reforms Continue
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar freed five political prisoners on Tuesday, with more expected to be freed next week. The prisoners, who were pardoned by Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, were convicted of a variety of political crimes such as high treason, contempt of government, unlawful association, and violations of peaceful assembly law according to the Associated Press.

Thein Sein, Myanmar’s reformist president, had pledged to pardon political prisoners as part of his planned reforms for his country. Earlier this year, Thein Sein confirmed that he would not be seeking another term as Myanmar’s president, leaving the country’s political future somewhat in flux. The amnesty promise, made in July 2013, was to be granted to all political prisoners by the end of 2013. It appears now that the process will continue into 2014. Bo Kyi, a member of the Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee, said that “more people are expected to be freed in the next batch in the first week of January.”

In addition to the amnesty, Myanmar will halt all ongoing trials and investigations connected with political prisoners. Bo Kyi added that “We welcome the presidential pardon order. However, several steps need to be taken to maintain a level of zero political prisoners. There must be rule of law and more political freedom to maintain that level.”

During his tenure as president, Thein Sein has freed around 1,300 political prisoners according to one estimate. The sweeping amnesty is part of Thein Sein’s process of political and economic reforms. The reforms have normalized Myanmar in the international community and reinvigorated its economy, integrating it regionally with ASEAN and other Asian states. Western states that had instituted heavy sanctions against Myanmar have mostly lifted the most biting sanctions in exchange for political reform.

The news of the political prisoner amnesty came as Myanmar pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she will contest the 2015 parliamentary elections, even if barred by the constitution which bars her from running. Article 59 of the Myanmar constitution bars any Myanmar citizen with links to a foreign country from running for president or vice president – Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen, and her two sons hold foreign citizenship.

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She has lobbied for a constitutional amendment. Her party, the National League for Democracy, announced that it would contest the 2015 election, despite Suu Kyi’s insistence that the constitution must be changed in order to set an environment for free and fair elections.

2014 is sure to be a critical year for Myanmar. The year will present a final opportunity for Thein Sein to make good on his promises of reform before the general elections in 2015.