Monday, July 24, 2017

US calls on president to release remaining political prisoners

A senior US State Department official yesterday called on President U Thein Sein to release remaining political prisoners before the end of his term in March, while also drawing attention to the plight of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken met separately in Nay Pyi Taw with the president, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Army Commander-in-Chief Vice Senior General Soe Win to discuss the transfer of power to the new government following the landslide win of the National League for Democracy in last November’s general election.

Mr Blinken told a news conference that the US would continue to support Myanmar’s democratic transition, and that it expected continued economic progress, national reconciliation and human rights improvements.

“Long-term economic growth must be nurtured and it must be sustained; the national reconciliation process must continue; remaining political prisoners must be released; and human rights protected for all no matter their ethnicity or religion,” he said.

The release of political prisoners was a key focus of his meeting with President U Thein Sein, who has released some – but not all – political prisoners. Mr Blinken said the president should release all remaining prisoners before his term ends in late March to solidify his legacy.

“One of the hallmarks of the reform process and transition in Myan-mar was the extraordinary release of 1300 political prisoners,” he said, referring to those freed from 2011-2014. “That captured the attention of the world, and was a key step toward democracy. We urge the government to complete the process and release all political prisoners.”

President U Thein Sein had promised to have all political prisoners released by the end of 2013, but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates that 128 remain behind bars. Another 403 political prisoners await trial.

The deputy secretary called for greater human rights for ethnic minorities, specifically mentioning the stateless Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, who are officially referred to as Bengalis by the government. The government last year revoked the temporary “white card” identity papers held by many Rohingya and also stripped them of their voting rights.

“I shared our strong concern about discrimination and violence experienced by ethnic and religious minorities, including the Rohingya population in Rakhine State,” Mr Blinken said. “As Aung San Suu Kyi has stressed, the solution is rule of law.”

The NLD leader has made rule of law a pillar of the party’s platform. Heading the Rule of Law and Tranquility Committee in parliament, she has helped launch Rule of Law Centres around the country to address an often-corrupt legal system.

Mr Blinken was asked if the US would stand behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s intention to be “above the president” in order to work around a provision in the 2008 constitution that bars her from the post on the grounds that her sons are foreign nationals.

Mr Blinken said the focus was on the transition – as speculation on the composition of the future government was hypothetical – but he indicated general support for her position.

“I will say more generally that the will of the people of Myanmar I think was expressed very clearly,” he said, referring to the NLD’s garnering of nearly 80 percent of elected seats in the November 8 election. “And that is in support of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and the leadership of the party in governing.”

A Chinese journalist asked how the relationship between Myanmar and the US would be affected by the relationship between Myanmar and China.

“There is no zero-sum choice between having a good relationship with the US and having a good relationship with China,” Mr Blinken said. “A strong positive relationship between Myanmar and China will advance the prospects for peace, stability and progress for all people.”