Myanmar’s military-backed government must release all political prisoners and stop violating the rights of ethnic minorities before it can expect normal relations with the United States, a top Obama administration official said Monday.
The release this month of hundreds of political prisoners in the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma has sparked cautious optimism that the secretive regime may be taking tangible steps toward political reform.
The Myanmar government has said it will free all political prisoners as part of an amnesty. About 220 were released last week. Pro-democracy activists and the government cite vastly differing estimates of the number of political prisoners. The activists put the number at more than 2,000, while the government says the number is much lower.
“Any political prisoners are too many political prisoners. … What we’re looking for is [the] release of all political prisoners without condition to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country,” Derek J. Mitchell, the first U.S. special representative for Myanmar, told reporters at the State Department.
“I think what we’re seeing … theres a positive trend line, encouraging signs,” he said.
Mr. Mitchell added the release of prisoners is “raising expectations both inside and outside the country, and therefore it’s incumbent on the government to follow up and to meet those expectations.”
Mr. Mitchell took office in mid-August and visited Myanmar in September.
The Obama administration has pursued a dual-track approach toward Myanmar that has included a combination of talks and sanctions on the regime. Over the past several months, the Myanmar government, led by President Thein Sein, a former general, has taken steps toward change.
Pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November after spending 15 of the last 21 years under some form of detention. She has since had meetings with government officials. Some restrictions on the media have also been lifted.
The Obama administration has reciprocated by removing travel bans on Myanmar officials.
Last month, Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was allowed to travel to Washington for meetings at the State Department.
The United States has also included the government in international dialogues and is looking at other gestures, Mr. Mitchell said.
“It’s not as if we’re standing still and we’re not sending signals,” he said.
Pro-democracy activists are skeptical about signs of change in Myanmar.
“We are not there yet. They have to continue to do more,” said Aung Din, executive director at the U.S. Campaign for Burma and a former political prisoner.
He pointed out that the regime has released political prisoners in the past.
“This is another proof that the regime hasn’t changed its behavior, using political prisoners as a bargaining chip for political gain and to dilute the international pressure,” he added.
Khin Maung Win, deputy chief editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma, said the release of political prisoners is a significant development.
“Of course we all want to see all political prisoners freed right away, at the same time there might be some constraints on the government. Doing too much too fast may result in instability,” he said in a phone interview from Oslo.