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Burma Opinion: Obama Visits, But the Political Prisoners Remain

President Obama's speech at the University of Yangon on Monday

President Obama's visit to Burma on Monday was the first by a sitting US President to the country since its independence in 1948, indicating that relations between the two countries are warming because of recent political reforms.

Coinciding with the US president's stopover, President Thein Sein announced last week that 452 prisoners would be released from Burma's prisons, but he received much criticism from human rights activists when it became clear that none of the 452 had been imprisoned for political charges. 

Burma's political prisoners are part of a game beyond justice: the Burmese government periodically releases hundreds of prisoners, gaining applause from Western democracies, even as it denies the existence of anyone jailed on political charges. After all, according to the Constitution, peaceful protests and campaigns for democracy are not "political" --- they are "criminal", classified as illegal. 

As Obama sets foot in Burma for the first time, it was confirmed that at least 44 political prisoners have been released. Campaigners cautiously welcomed this gesture while reminding the international community that these people are essentially being released into an open prison. They are not allowed to study, many are denied passports, lawyers are stripped of their licences and prison sentences remain unchanged. This means that they can be re-arrested at any time. They can also be replaced: since January 2012, at least 200 individuals have been detained and arrested for political reasons. 

The last release took place in September, a few days before President Thein Sein visited New York for the UN General Assembly. The current move is generally considered as an attempt to further warm the relationship with the US, and Obama's trip has been applauded as a sign of confidence in the recent government reforms. But Burmese activists warn that it might be too soon for such a visit, and Kyaw Min Yu, leader of the 1988 student uprising questions the genuineness of the government. "The release of prisoners should not be related to Obama's trip. It's just something the government should do as quickly as possible." 

And there is one person whose scepticism is especially pertinent: Noble Aye fled to the town of Mae Sot on the border of Thailand after she was released from her 42-year sentence last January. She says she will not return until the Burmese Government shows genuine will to reform. Her criminal record of distributing pamphlets about democracy still stands.

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