YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's president has pardoned at least 20 political prisoners just ahead of a historic visit to the United States that will highlight the two sides' improved relations brought about by the former pariah nation's democratic reforms.
State media reported Saturday that 23 prisoners were freed, though it did not call them political offenders. Ye Aung, a member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, said at least 20 political detainees were freed Friday.
President Thein Sein will visit the White House on Monday, the first state visit by a Myanmar leader in almost 47 years.
The U.S. applied sanctions against Myanmar's previous military regime for its poor human rights record. Thein Sein has implemented several reforms since his election in 2010, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners. The U.S. in turn eased most sanctions. In November, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar.
It has become a pattern for prison amnesties to coincide with high-profile international or regional meetings as a way of highlighting the Myanmar government's benevolent policies. Thein Sein pardoned 93 prisoners, including at least 59 political detainees, in April, a day after the European Union lifted sanctions against the Southeast Asian nation.
The release of political detainees in Myanmar has been a key concern of the United States, and Washington wants all of the country's political prisoners freed.
A group campaigning for democracy in Myanmar — which is also known by its old name, Burma — accuses Thein Sein's government of using political prisoners for public relations purposes.
"Thein Sein seems to have judged, sadly apparently correctly, that the Obama administration is particularly gullible and likely to respond positively to this kind of manipulative use of political prisoner releases," Burma Campaign UK said in a statement.
The group also expressed concern that Thein Sein's democratic reforms were incomplete.
"Thein Sein has also left almost every repressive law used to jail political prisoners in place," the statement said. "Almost all the releases of political prisoners have only been released conditionally, meaning that if they engage in political activities which the government does not like they can be put back in jail and have to serve a new prison term and their old prison term."
President's office director Maj. Zaw Htay's responded on his Facebook page to such criticism. He said Thein Sein doesn't use political prisoners as tools, and that his interest is just to have an all- inclusive process.
One of those freed Friday was Nay Myo Zin, a former prisoner who had been amnestied before but who was recently ordered to serve the remainder of his original sentence after he was arrested for participating in a farmers' protest against land confiscation.
Nay Myo Zin, a former army captain, had been serving a 10-year sentence when he was amnestied in 2012.
Ye Aung, a former prisoner himself, said many of those freed Friday had been identified by his committee as political detainees, and he looked forward to the release of all such prisoners.
"According to our list there are still 160 political prisoners remaining in prison. We are still scrutinizing the list and there could be more," he said.
The government had routinely denied the existence of political prisoners, saying all people sentenced to jail had been convicted legitimately of breaking the nation's laws. But Thein Sein's administration recently conceded that there are political detainees, and formed the committee with government officials and former political prisoners to tally and report who remains imprisoned.