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After announcing the release of more than 500 inmates through a presidential amnesty on Monday night, rights’ groups claim that more than 80 of the freed were political prisoners.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), 88 of the 514 prisoners were political prisoners; however, different political parties and NGOs have cited different numbers that are close in range to the AAPP’s count.
“We are happy to hear there are more than 80 political prisoners, including those serving lengthy sentences, are among the released,” said 88 Generation Students’ leader Min Ko Naing. “However, there is a larger number remaining behind bars and we are sad for them.”
According to the Former Political Prisoners Organisation, 303 political prisoners are still incarcerated in Burmese penitentiaries.
Of the prisoners released on Tuesday, many were foreign nationals. Reuters citied an anonymous prison official who claimed “399 of the 514 included in the amnesty were foreigners, including 84 from Thailand and 18 from China, mostly jailed for immigration offences.”
Shwe Htoo, a 68-year-old history teacher from Mandalay, was one of the 88 political prisoners granted presidential amnesty on Monday after languishing for more than 14 years in Taunggyi Prison in Shan state.
“After spending many years in prison, my mind is rusted and it’ll take some effort to heal,” said Shwe Htoo, who was one of the last political prisoners incarcerated in Taunggyi.
The former history teacher has been an active political dissident since the first student protests flared up following the military coup in 1962. He also participated in the 8888 Uprising in August 1988. Shwe Htoo was arrested in 1993 then released in 1995 but was taken into custody again by Military Intelligence officials on 30 May 1998 for organising the 9999 protests – a failed attempt to stage another uprising.
Shwe Htoo was sentenced to 42 years in prison but was released on Monday evening in accordance with Thein Sein’s amnesty as the Burmese head of state prepares to travel abroad to attend the UN General Assembly.
According to Shwe Htoo, he was unaware that he was going to be released and was informed a few hours before lockdown on Monday night of his imminent departure from Taunggyi’s facility.
The former political prisoner says he plans to join the National League for Democracy in Mandalay following his release.
-Aye Nai and Ko Pho Thar contributed reporting