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Prisoners freed as Obama lands in Burma

Published: 4:50PM Monday November 19, 2012 Source: Reuters

Barack Obama arrived in Burma today, the first visit by a serving US president to the Southeast Asian country, which is opening up after almost half a century of military rule.

His plane landed at the airport in former capital Yangon, where he was due to meet President Thein Sein, who has led the political and economic reforms since taking office in March 2011, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who led the fight for democracy under the former junta.

Obama will spend barely six hours in the country - also known as Myanmar - before flying to Cambodia for summit meetings with the leaders of other Southeast Asian states and partner countries.

To mark the occasion, the Burma government began releasing sixty-six prisoners - two-thirds of them dissidents - according to prison officials and activists.

A third of those released were former military intelligence personnel, who fell foul of the junta, according to the 88 Generation Students political group.

Myint Aye is arguably the most prominent dissident left in Burma's gulag. He was one of dozens of activists arrested on what Amnesty International says were trumped-up charges and convicted in secret courts on flimsy evidence or confessions extracted under torture.

A former member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, he was arrested for the ninth time in August 2008 for his alleged role in the bombing of an office belonging to a junta-backed political organisation.

Myint Aye confessed to the bombing, after military intelligence officers forced him to watch the torture of his co-accused, said his lawyer.

"I know they freed us just because of President Obama's trip," said Yan Shwe, who was convicted with Myint Aye. "I thank him for this, but frankly speaking, we shouldn't have been sent to prison all along, since all these were false accusations."

Four political prisoners were released from Kale Prison, but about half a dozen more remain inside, said Yan Shwe.

International human rights groups accused President Obama of ignoring abuses in Burma and Cambodia, while honouring them with his first presidential visit since his re-election.

Obama denied his visit to Burma was an endorsement of the country's government, but rather an acknowledgement of the progress made towards democratisation and abandoning its pariah status earned during 49 years of military rule, he said during a news conference in Thailand today.

In a further sign of reform, the government will also permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to resume prisoner visits within the country.

The government also plans to "devise a transparent mechanism to review remaining prisoner cases of concern by the end of December 2012".