Newly-released political student protester and family members cry after being reunited in Tharrawaddy town. (AFP Photo)
More than 100 political prisoners in Myanmar have been freed under an amnesty ordered by the country's new de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, as her first official act.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Saturday cited police as saying that 113 political detainees were freed across the country. Their freedom came along with a general amnesty for ordinary convicts ahead of Myanmar's traditional New Year festival, often the occasion for prisoner releases.
The move was praised by human rights advocates, but a jarring note was struck when two peace activists the same day Friday were each sentenced to two years with hard labor for activities bringing them into contact with an armed ethnic rebel group that has been battling the central government.
A court in the central city of Mandalay sentenced Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt under a law barring associating with an unlawful organization for their contacts with the Kachin Independence Army, a guerrilla group in the country's far north. Both were already sentenced in February to two years' imprisonment for immigration law violations.
The two are members of an interfaith religious organization and said that they had been seeking to help refugees from fighting. Both are also Muslims, a minority that has faced increasing pressure and violence in recent years in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar.
Their case was generally overlooked in the euphoria over the release of prisoners, especially more than 60 students and activists in central Myanmar who had been held for a year pending trial after being arrested for their protest against changes in education policy.
Photos from the scene showed some of the freed prisoners being presented with bouquets and garlands by well-wishers.
Rights groups estimated that 100 political detainees remained in prison when a military-backed government was succeeded by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party late last month. About 400 others were being held pending trial, including the 60 students in the town of Tharrawaddy. Different procedures are required for the release of people from the two groups.
"Today's release of most of the student protesters is a huge step forward for human rights in Myanmar, and we are delighted that these men and women will walk free. It sends a strong message about the new government's intention to end the cycle of political arrest and detention in Myanmar," said Laura Haigh, Myanmar researcher for the human rights group Amnesty International.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner commended the government's "early demonstrated commitment to human rights." He told reporters that the U.S. stands ready to support Myanmar on further democratic reform. However, he had no announcement to make on removal of the remaining sanctions that Washington has in place against Myanmar - which mostly target officials of the former ruling junta.
Under the previous government that took power in 2011, more than 1,100 political detainees were released. The junta that held power before then kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for a number of years, and jailed hundreds of her supporters and other critics.
Suu Kyi, who holds the specially created post of state counsellor, announced Thursday in a statement on the Facebook page of the office of President Htin Kyaw that the release of political prisoners was a priority. It was her first official act in her new job, which is akin to that of prime minister.
By agreement of her party, Suu Kyi is the de facto head of government, though the military-era constitution does not allow her to be president because her two sons have British citizenship. Shortly before her party won a landslide victory in last November's election, she announced her intention to run the government by being "above the president."