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Myanmar junta frees 21 political prisoners

Yangon, May 4 (Reuters): Myanmar’s military government said today it had freed 21 political prisoners, including 12 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party, in what it called an effort to move closer to multi-party democracy.

Some 1,100 to 1,200 political prisoners languish in Myanmar’s colonial era gaols, according to UN rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who abruptly cut short a visit late in March after discovering a bugging device while interviewing a prisoner.

Pinheiro called the incident “a great embarrassment” for Myanmar’s ruling generals, and urged them to free all political prisoners to help restore the trust of the UN.

“The government of Myanmar commuted the sentences and released 18 prisoners today and three last week,” government spokesman Hla Min said, adding health and humanitarian concerns influenced the decision.

“The releases are the latest in a series of efforts by the government to move Myanmar to multi-party democracy and national conciliation.”

Myanmar’s military, accused by some Western nations and human rights groups of torture and using forced labour and systematic rape as weapons against ethnic minorities, has freed hundreds of political prisoners since late 2000.

That year it started “national reconciliation talks” brokered by the UN with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

The junta freed Suu Kyi from house arrest last May, raising hopes it would enter into talks on a democratic transition with the NLD, which won 1990 elections by a landslide but has never been allowed to rule.

But Suu Kyi has become increasingly frustrated that her calls for talks are falling on deaf ears. Last month she said of the junta: “They don’t want change, but change is inevitable”.

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