YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar began transferring some political prisoners from remote jails to facilities closer to their families on Wednesday, according to a security official, but there was no sign when others might be freed.
News of the transfer was received warily by family and associates of prisoners, who feared it might take the place of a broader release, which had been anticipated this week. They also questioned the benefits of such transfers.
A Home Ministry official said the transfers included some prominent prisoners. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, identified three of those being moved as former student activists Min Ko Naing and Nilar Thein, and ethnic Shan politician Hkun Tun Oo.
Myanmar's three state-owned newspapers had published an open letter Sunday from state National Human Rights Commission chairman Win Mra calling on President Thein Sein to grant an amnesty to political detainees "as a reflection of magnanimity," or to transfer political prisoners to facilities with easier access for their family members.
The letter's publication was notable because the newspapers closely reflect government positions. An amnesty of 6,359 prisoners, including about 200 political detainees, in October occurred on the same day that state-run newspapers published a similar appeal.
A release has also been anticipated because a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations begins Thursday in Bali, Indonesia. Myanmar is seeking to chair the group in 2014, and the release of political prisoners would be seen as a positive development favoring its bid, which is likely to be confirmed at this week's summit.
Asked if her family in Yangon was aware of the transfers, Min Ko Naing's sister Kyi Kyi Nyunt said they were not officially informed of the move.
According to the official, Min Ko Naing was being moved from Keng Tung, 735 miles (1,180 kilometers) north of Yangon in Shan States, to Thayet in Magway Region, 340 miles (550 kilometers) north of Yangon. The distance is shorter, but it is arguably more convenient to fly to Keng Tung than to take a car and then a ferry across the Irrawaddy River to Thayet.
In recent years, political detainees who previously would have been held at Insein Prison in the main city of Yangon have instead been sent to jails in remote areas of the country in an apparent effort to make it difficult for them to communicate with the outside.
Myanmar's nominally civilian government, which took power in March, has declared its intention to liberalize the hard-line policies of the junta that preceded it. It has taken some steps, such as easing censorship, legalizing labor unions, suspending an unpopular, China-backed dam project, and beginning talks with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy movement.
In return for such moves, it hopes to improve relations with the West, particularly the United States, which had imposed political and economic sanctions against the previous military regime for its repressive policies.
A senior member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy described the prisoner transfers as "unacceptable." Many of the estimated 2,000 political prisoners held in Myanmar are members of the group.
"We can assume that the prison transfers mean these people will not be freed. The NLD, the international community and the people have been calling for the unconditional release of all political prisoners," Win Tin, a prominent journalist and former prisoner, told The Associated Press.
Win Tin, 82, who was freed from nearly 19 years' imprisonment in 2008, said changing prisons had an adverse psychological impact on prisoners.
Families who have developed friendships with prison authorities for convenient access and sending food parcels are forced to start from zero and deal with new authorities.