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Myanmar's release of prisoners leaves U.S. cautiously optimistic

The Obama administration wants more reforms before economic sanctions are lifted in the Southeast Asian nation.

October 26, 2011|By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times
  • Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is surrounded by supporters Oct. 18 at the birthday celebration of Min Ko Naing, a 1988-era student protest leader who is still in prison. Suu Kyi was freed from strict house arrest last year.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is surrounded by supporters… (Khin Maung Win, AP )

Reporting from Washington — The Obama administration was encouraged by Myanmar's recent release of some prisoners under a "humanitarian" amnesty but wants to see more reforms before the U.S. considers lifting economic sanctions on the impoverished nation, officials say.

The military government in the Southeast Asian nation has appeared more flexible with political opponents in major cities, but violence has continued against ethnic minorities in the rural north and east, Derek Mitchell, special U.S. envoy for Myanmar, said last week in Washington.

Mitchell said there were also "credible reports" of continuing human rights abuses against women and children.

"We have seen encouraging signs over time," Mitchell said, but "some things haven't changed, and we should be noting those."

Myanmar, which last year ended strict house arrest for pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, continues to fall short in key areas, U.S. officials said.

Mitchell said Myanmar should release hundreds more political prisoners that human rights groups say remain incarcerated, not just the estimated 120 to 300 prisoners who were released this month. A total of 6,359 detainees were granted amnesty in a step that coincided with a religious holiday and a trip to India by President Thein Sein.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, should halt a clandestine relationship with the reclusive communist regime in North Korea, Mitchell said. U.S. officials long have worried that North Korea might be trying to sell Myanmar missiles or nuclear weapons technology.

Partly because of those concerns, the Obama administration has sought to build a new relationship with Myanmar, which has been ruled by the military since 1962. Over the years, the international community has repeatedly condemned the regime for widespread corruption and systematic violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said this month in neighboring Thailand that it was "undeniably the case that there are dramatic developments underway" in Myanmar.

But some pro-reform groups warned that the government has eased its harsh grip before, only to crack down again. They said the regime's motives are not always clear.

Peter Manikas, Asia director of the National Democratic Institute, a nonpartisan U.S. organization that promotes democracy overseas, said experts disagree on how to interpret Myanmar's decision to abandon a hydroelectric dam project on the Irrawaddy River that China had planned.

The project would have displaced thousands of people, and the move to cancel it was widely seen as a sign of a new sensitivity to public opinion. But Manikas said Myanmar officials may be trying to move the country further from China's orbit and closer to India.

"We need to try to take advantage of these signs of warming," Manikas said. "But there's a danger that the entire international community is becoming unjustifiably enthusiastic. We need to approach this with some degree of skepticism."

Myanmar's efforts also may be timed to encourage its selection as chair of a major regional group, the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations. Officials say such an appointment, which could come next month but wouldn't take effect until 2014, would signal legitimacy for the regime and improve its international standing.

If Myanmar does implement reforms, Washington is likely to respond with symbolic moves, including reinstating a U.S. ambassador.

The United States withdrew its envoy in protest in 1990 after security forces brutally crushed a student-led uprising, killing thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators. A charge d'affaires has run the U.S. Embassy since then.

paul.richter@latimes.com

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