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Mitchell: Burma’s political prisoner release not enough

The Obama administration is considering easing sanctions on the Burmese government, but the release last week of about 200 political prisoners is not enough to prove the junta is really changing, according to Derek Mitchell, the State Department’s special representative and policy coordinator for Burma. "Any political prisoners are too many political prisoners, and what ...

The Obama administration is considering easing sanctions on the Burmese government, but the release last week of about 200 political prisoners is not enough to prove the junta is really changing, according to Derek Mitchell, the State Department’s special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.

"Any political prisoners are too many political prisoners, and what we’re looking for is release of all political prisoners without condition, to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country," Mitchell told reporters at a special State Department briefing Monday.

Reports have noted that the initial release of prisoners by the junta is only a fraction of the total of over 2,000 estimated political prisoners in the country and doesn’t include many prominent political prisoners whom the international community is advocating for. Those include student leader Min Ko Naing, activist leader Ko Ko Gyi, and many others.

Mitchell names Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi as examples of political prisoners the Obama administration would like to see released as proof that the junta’s new attitude is serious.

"I said directly to the leadership that these are the people that if you’re serious about democratic reform, you would see as allies, because they actually are seeking the same goals you are," he said. "I’m not sure we’ve seen anything necessarily exactly like we’ve seen over the past several months…. But there are still questions about how far they’re going to go and where this is going to lead."

Mitchell also said that real engagement by the United States and the international community can’t be fully realized until the Burmese government stops the abuses and attacks on ethnic minorities near Burma’s borders.

 "Their violence continues. Credible reports of human rights abuses, including against women and children, continue," he said. "And in fact we made it very clear that we could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur and as long as there is not dialogue with these groups and with the opposition and violence remains — then that will be a constraint on the relationship."

Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable that the junta often uses the release of small numbers of political prisoners as a bargaining chip for short-term political gain and to dilute international pressure.

The junta hasn’t even acknowledged the numbers of political prisoners in its control, he said, and is claiming it only has 600 political prisoners under arrest.

"The best way to confirm the numbers of political prisoners is to allow the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to visit all prisoners and conduct an investigation about their numbers and situation," he said. "I hope the United States government continues to push the regime to allow the ICRC to visit prisons, confirm the numbers of political prisoners, and release them as soon as possible."

Aung Din participated in a Burma discussion last week at the Heritage Foundation with Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski; Jared Genser, founder and president of Freedom Now; and Walter Lohman, director of Heritage’s Asian Studies Center.

The group’s consensus was that the junta’s moves are heavy on form and light on substance and have been tried multiple times in the past.

Genser laid out several items of perceived progress and concluded, "An analysis of those items where people are pointing to potential progress are, in fact, so far mostly illusory, particularly when you put this in the context of recent Burmese history."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin