New Zealander among 34 political prisoners pardoned in Myanmar

New Zealander among 34 political prisoners pardoned in Myanmar
Released political prisoners shout for the release of other political prisoners in front of Insein prison in Yangon January 22, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

YANGON - Myanmar pardoned more than 100 prisoners Friday, including a New Zealander and 34 others jailed on political charges, officials said, days before a historic political transition that will see Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy party take power.

The move comes after a US envoy urged the quasi-civilian government last week to free all remaining political prisoners before the new parliament convenes next month.

"Altogether 102 prisoners including a foreign prisoner, a New Zealand national who was serving his sentence were released," presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay wrote on his official Facebook account.

Outgoing President Thein Sein, a former general, has overseen Myanmar's transition from nearly five decades of junta rule that ended in 2011, releasing political prisoners at key moments in the reform process.

That transition culminated with landmark elections held in November that saw the party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - who the junta kept under house arrest for 15 years - win a thumping majority.

Friday's pardon included at least 34 prisoners of conscience, said Ye Aung, a representative of the Former Political Prisoners Support Group.

Among those pardoned was Philip Blackwood, 32, a New Zealander sentenced to two years in prison last March for insulting religion by using an image of a Buddha wearing headphones to promote a cheap drinks night at the Yangon bar where he worked.

His jailing was condemned by rights groups and read as a worrying sign of surging Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, which has seen anti-Muslim riots and persecution of the country's troubled Rohingya population.

Presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay said the pardon was signed to mark an ongoing peace conference hosted in north-western Myanmar by a top Buddhist monk, Sitagu Sayadaw, who has strong links to the hardline Ma Ba Tha Buddhist nationalist movement.

"The release was aimed to mark the World Buddhist Peace Conference where the president is currently attending," he told AFP, without elaborating.

Though many of Myanmar's hundreds of political dissidents were jailed during repressive junta rule, scores of activists have also been thrown behind bars under Thein Sein's watch.

Last March authorities launched a violent crackdown on a student-led education protest in the town of Letpadan, some two hours north of Yangon.

Around 60 young activists remain in prison following that episode and face trial accused of stirring unrest.

Prior to Friday's pardon, a total of 537 political prisoners were being held in Myanmar prisons , according to a report by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an NGO that monitors jailed dissidents in Myanmar.

Min Min, a land activist released from Yangon's Insein prison this morning, told AFP that he worries about the others still behind bars.

"We want all political prisoners to be freed," he said. "There are many more political prisoners inside prison."

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