Suu Kyi promises prisoner releases

Does Aung San Suu Kyi know the way? Photo: Asean Economist

Aung San Suu Kyi says all remaining political prisoners will be freed within the next two weeks.

It was her first announcement in her new role as “state counsellor”, which gives her prime ministerial powers. She is constitutionally barred from the presidency because her children are British citizens but she leads the National League for Democracy which has a huge parliamentary majority.

Around 500 political prisoners are in jail or awaiting trial, most for holding unauthorised demonstrations and Suu Kyi said the releases were a governmental priority.

There are an estimated 100 political prisoners in jail and about 400 being held while they are on trial. More than 100 students have been imprisoned since March 10 last year for protesting against the centralising National Education Law.

It is unclear who will qualify as a political prisoner under the announcement and whether it will apply to the many ethnic-minority insurgents.

Military observers described the strategy to establish Suu Kyi’s role in defiance of the armed forces as dangerous for the first civilian-led administration since 1962.

“The scene at Parliament was not good, it showed how immature the Parliament is,” said Khin Zaw Oo, a retired lieutenant-general. “The relationship between the NLD and the military will be impacted…it will not be a good future relationship between the two sides.”

The military MPs, who occupy a quarter of parliament under the constitution, were angered at not having prior knowledge of the bill creating Suu Kyi’s new job title, introduced to parliament the day after the NLD took power.

Military representatives claimed it contradicted the 2008 constitution, which states that the president is the highest authority in the land and tries to separate the three branches of government: the legislature, judiciary and executive. They demanded amendments which were voted down by the NLD and then abstained from the vote.

The military-drafted constitution states the armed forces are the guarantors of the charter, with many fearing the country will never be far from a coup or martial law.

Military cooperation is needed on issues, particularly Myanmar’s numerous ethnic conflicts. The armed forces control the key ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs, and can overrule most NLD initiatives in the unstable border regions. The military has control of large swaths of the economy.

“In forming a government, a number of minorities and the military have been alienated [by the NLD],” said Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner. “It is very much starting off on the wrong foot…If these lapses and failings continue over time, patience will surely wear thin.”

US President Barack Obama called Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw to praise her “determined efforts, over the course of many years and at great personal cost, to achieve a peaceful transfer of power and advance national reconciliation”, Washington said.

Suu Kyi also met China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in her role as foreign minister.