Released political prisoners leave Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar,… (Khin Maung Win/ Associated…)
NEW DELHI — Myanmar President Thein Sein released some 20 political prisoners Friday, days before a historic summit with President Obama in Washington early next week, according to officials and prisoner rights groups.
The ex-general's government denied that the releases were linked to the visit, and activist groups said the nation's leadership had not gone far enough. But the release follows last month's pardon of dozens of political prisoners — one day after the European Union agreed to end most economic sanctions against the former pariah state.
Thein Sein will be the first leader of Myanmar, also known as Burma, to visit Washington since 1966. This follows Obama's visit to Myanmar in November, the first by a sitting U.S. president.
The Obama administration has welcomed nascent democratic reforms in Myanmar, in part because they offer an example to other hard-line states such as North Korea of the benefits of engaging the outside world.
Since coming to power in a flawed election, Thein Sein's government has eased media controls, allowed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to run for political office and freed hundreds of political prisoners.
But the military retains overall control. For example, the military-crafted constitution guarantees it a quarter of all seats in the parliament. The country also has witnessed growing sectarian violence between its majority Buddhist population and ethnic and religious minorities such as the Rohingya Muslims.
Zaw Htay, a senior official in Thein Sein's office, said on social media that the latest amnesty showed the president was determined to offer an "inclusive political process," and he denied that the dissidents were being used for political ends.
Human rights activists counter that 200 to 250 political prisoners remain in jail or await trials.
"It's too little and it's unclear if these were released unconditionally," said Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, an activist group. "And it's political, done just because he's traveling to Washington, although they always deny it."
Washington's carrot-and-stick approach to Myanmar was on display early this month when it dropped visa restrictions on former military officials, their family members and business partners, even as it retained a visa and investment ban against individuals accused of human rights abuses.
Analysts said by extending next week's invitation, Washington is rewarding Thein Sein for reforms, while nudging his government to do more in order to strengthen ties.
"Practically, no major new concessions are expected," said Richard Horsey, an independent analyst who spent five years in Myanmar with the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. "But a strategic relationship with Myanmar is important for the U.S., as it pivots to the Asia-Pacific [region] and seeks to balance China's growing clout in the region."
Similarly, closer ties help Myanmar's bid to reduce its dependence on Beijing.
The Obama administration is expected to raise human rights concerns, including those for the Rohingya, an officially stateless community that Myanmar doesn't recognize as part of its citizenry despite the fact that they have lived in the country for generations. A recent Human Rights Watch report accused the country of a "campaign of ethnic cleansing" against the Rohingya, who are concentrated in western Rakhine state.
"Opium production in Myanmar is another issue of U.S. concern," said Aung Thu Nyein, director of the Thailand-based Vahu Development Institute. "And trade and investment opportunities in Myanmar, particularly in the natural resource sector, are definitely of interest for U.S. firms."
Myanmar, for its part, is expected to ask the U.S. to lift all remaining sanctions. Leaders also probably will discuss efforts to locate the remains of American soldiers killed in World War II and to strengthen the rule of law.
Human rights groups have criticized Washington's willingness to host Thein Sein, terming the summit premature. Others, however, say the U.S. should move faster, following the European Union's lead on ending all sanctions, which would bolster Thein Sein's political standing against hard-liners.
"Carrot-and-stick approaches may work for apocryphal donkeys," Horsey said. "For a government that is committed to fundamental reform and that is reaching out to the West for ideas and support, a carrot-and-stick approach is unhelpful at best and counterproductive at worst. Sanctions on Myanmar have definitely passed their use-by date."