New Myanmar government led by Suu Kyi begins releasing political prisoners

More than 60 students in Myanmar have been released as part of a plan by the country’s new de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to free all political prisoners.

The release Friday in the central town of Tharrawaddy was covered by a general amnesty ahead of Myanmar’s traditional New Year festival, often the occasion for prisoner releases.

Photos from the scene showed some of the freed prisoners being presented with bouquets and garlands by well-wishers.

Rights groups estimated that 100 political detainees remained in prison when a military-backed government was succeeded by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party late last month. About 400 others were being held pending trial, including the 60 students in Tharrawaddy who were detained a year ago during a protest for education reforms. Different procedures are required for the release of people from the two groups.

“Today’s release of most of the student protesters is a huge step forward for human rights in Myanmar, and we are delighted that these men and women will walk free. It sends a strong message about the new government’s intention to end the cycle of political arrest and detention in Myanmar,” said Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for the human rights group Amnesty International.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner commended the government’s “early demonstrated commitment to human rights.” He told reporters that the U.S. stands ready to support Myanmar on further democratic reform. However, he had no announcement to make on removal of the remaining sanctions that Washington has in place against Myanmar — which mostly target officials of the former ruling junta. Under the previous government that took power in 2011, more than 1,100 political detainees were released. The junta that held power before then kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for a number of years, and jailed hundreds of her supporters and other critics. Suu Kyi, who holds the specially created post of state counsellor, announced Thursday in a statement on the Facebook page of the office of President Htin Kyaw that the release of political prisoners was a priority. It was her first official act in her new job, which is akin to that of prime minister. By agreement of her party, Suu Kyi is the de facto head of government, though the military-era constitution does not allow her to be president because her two sons have British citizenship. Shortly before her party won a landslide victory in last November’s election, she announced her intention to run the government by being “above the president.”