Myanmar frees 70 democracy protesters

YANGON, Myanmar – At least 70 people detained by the military government following protests in Myanmar, including 50 members of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi‘s party, have been released, a party spokesman said Friday.

Their release came Thursday, the same day that Suu Kyi, detained since May 2003, met with a newly appointed Myanmar government official as part of a U.N.-brokered attempt to nudge her and the military junta toward reconciliation.

It was not known if the events were related, though the junta is under considerable international pressure to make at least goodwill gestures after crushing peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations last month. A U.N. special envoy praised the meeting as a promising first step.

The government had earlier said it detained about 3,000 people in connection with the protests but had released most of them. There are many reports they were mistreated in custody.

The junta, meanwhile, deployed hundreds of riot police, armed with assault rifles and tear gas, on Friday in Yangon, the country’s largest city, where last month’s big protests were held.

The show of force after several weeks of relative quiet appeared aimed at forestalling any activities to mark the one-month anniversary of a key day in the anti-regime uprising by Buddhist monks, activists and ordinary citizens angry at the entrenched military government.

The people released Thursday had been detained at the infamous Insein Prison in Yangon, said Nyan Win, spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.

Among those released was Hla Pe, an 82-year-old party executive, Nyan Win said, adding that at least 250 NLD members remained in detention. He said 10 Buddhist monks, 14 students, and 10 female NLD members were among those freed.

Security was especially tight Friday at the eastern gate of the famed Shwedagon pagoda where monks were beaten as police broke up a protest on Sept. 26. Barbed wire was erected around the area while police and pro-junta thugs also took up positions near the Sule Pagoda in the heart of the city and other sites of earlier protests.

There were no signs that any public protests Friday, though thousands of pilgrims thronged to the Shwedagon and other pagodas. Friday also marked the end of the Lent period, an important Buddhist holiday when monks can leave their monasteries to travel after several months of monsoon season retreats.

A Myanmar reporter who tried photograph of pilgrims at the Shwedagon was immediately surrounded by nearly a dozen riot police and a police officer confiscated the memory card from the camera.

Suu Kyi’s meeting Thursday was the first one she was known to have held with “minister for relations” retired major general Aung Kyi, who was appointed to the post on Oct. 8 to hold talks with her. State TV reported that they met for more than an hour at a government guest house, a few minutes from where the residence where Suu Kyi is held under house arrest.

Although state media showed Suu Kyi meeting in circumstances usually accorded visiting dignitaries, some residents and Western diplomats remained skeptical, suggesting the move was merely aimed at easing pressure on the junta.

Ibrahim Gambari, the U.N. envoy trying to broker a compromise, said the meeting was a good beginning.

“But it’s only the first step, so this should lead to early resumption of talks that will lead to tangible results,” Gambari told reporters in Japan.

“She’s very conscious of the difficulties her people are experiencing,” Gambari told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, referring to Suu Kyi. “Her concern is to put an end to the violence and that prisoners are released.”

Early this month, the government announced that junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe was willing to meet with Suu Kyi — but only if she met certain conditions, such as renouncing support for foreign countries’ economic sanctions against the military regime.

Than Shwe has only met Suu Kyi once before, in 2002

Appointing a liaison officer had been suggested by Gambari during his Sept. 29-Oct. 2 visit to Myanmar, according to Myanmar state media.

Gambari had met with Than Shwe and Suu Kyi separately during his visit.

The protest movement began Aug. 19 over the government raising fuel prices mushroomed over several weeks into a broad-based anti-government movement pressing for democratic reforms.

After the demonstrations started attracting tens of thousands of people in Yangon, troops quelled the mass protests with gunfire. The government said 10 people were killed, but dissident groups put the death toll at up to 200 and say 6,000 people were detained, including thousands of monks.


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