By THE IRRAWADDY
A senior government minister said that Burma's remaining political prisoners could be freed as early as next month, according to a participant in recent peace talks who said the official referred to two specific dates when the releases would take place.
Aung Min, the government's Railways Minister, broke the news during talks on Wednesday with leaders of the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed group, in the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot.
According to a KNU source who attended the meeting, Aung Min said that all remaining political prisoners will be released next month in two groupsthe first on Jan 4, Burma's Independence Day, and the second on Jan 12.
The discussions also included the case of Mahn Nyein Maung, a KNU leader who was recently sentenced by a Burmese court to 17 years in prison on charges of unlawful association and breaking immigration laws.
Mahn Nyein Maung was arrested by Chinese immigration officials in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, after attempting to return to Thailand, where he is based, in July. He was subsequently handed over to the Burmese authorities.
He [Aung Min] asked us if Mahn Nyein Maung's release would benefit the KNU. We replied that his release and that of other KNU members in prison in Burma would help the peace process between us and the government, said the KNU source.
Aung Min has in recent months become the government's chief negotiator in talks with Burma's ethnic armed groups. On Thursday, he met with representatives of the New Mon State Party in the Thai town of Sangklaburi.
The release of political prisoners remains a key demand of the US and other Western countries that have imposed economic sanctions on Burma for its poor human rights record.
It is unclear, however, exactly how many political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma. The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners puts the figure at more than 1,500, while the government has said that there are only around 200about the same number it released in October.
According to the National League for Democracy, Burma's main opposition party, the number is 591.