‘Same Old’ Burma Releases Political Prisoners Before Sports Event

Reformist government releases activists hours before the opening ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games

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Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

An advertisement balloon of the 27th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games is pictured above a stadium as a police stands guard nearby in Naypyitaw December 10, 2013.

The Burmese government announced a new round of amnesties on Wednesday that saw the release of 41 political prisoners just as fans and dignitaries arrive for a regional sports tournament. The timing coincides with the opening ceremony of the 27th Southeast Asia Games, which is set to kick off in the isolated capital of Naypyidaw.

The games have been branded as indicative of the country’s near-complete transition from a pariah state to restored member of the international community. However, analysts have criticized Burma’s ex-military leadership for continuing to use imprisoned activists as a carrot to appease the international community.

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“Once again, political prisoners are being used for political effect and are basically hostage to government agendas. How much has the government really changed? Two years ago it denied having political prisoners, now it reaps international kudos every time it stages a faux amnesty,” said Human Rights Watch’s David Mathieson.

Burma’s quasi-civilian government has repeatedly timed the release of political prisoners with upcoming international events and visits from heads of states. Earlier this year, Burma released 56 political prisoners as President Thein Sein traveled to Brunei for a ceremony marking his country’s acceptance of the 2014 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Burma’s reformist leader has repeatedly promised to release all of the country’s remaining political prisoners by the end of the year.

According to the Bo Kyi, the joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, 41 political prisoners remain behind bars, while another 200 await trial. “We need to wait and see if the President will keep his promise,” he told TIME.

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