Burma frees longest-serving political prisoner


Burma's longest-serving political prisoner, journalist Win Tin, was freed today after 19 years in jail and immediately vowed to continue his struggle against the military junta.

"I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country," he told reporters outside a friend's house in the former Burma's main city, the former capital Rangoon. He was still wearing his light-blue prison clothes.

The ailing 79-year old was arrested in July 1989 and sent to jail for giving shelter to a girl thought to have received an illegal abortion.

While in prison, he received additional punishment for agitating against the military government and distributing propaganda, bringing his total sentence to 20 years.

He was released on the same day that 9,002 prisoners were set free, but said he had complained to prison officials about being lumped in as part of a nationwide amnesty for ordinary criminals getting out on good behaviour.

In protest, he refused to pick up his personal belongings or change into civilian clothes.

"I did not accept their terms for the amnesty. I refused to be one of 9,002," he said, adding that no conditions had been attached to his release. "Far from it. They should have released me five years ago. They owe me a few years," he said.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), which tracks inmates of Burma's gulag, said five other prisoners of conscience were also released today.

The US State Department's Robert Wood today called Win Tin's release "a very positive development".
"We continue to call on the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi, and move the country down the path toward democracy," Mr Wood said. 

Amnesty International said it was "elated" by news of the releases, even though more than 2,100 people remain behind bars on account of their political or religious beliefs.

Win Tin was one of Burma's most high-profile political prisoners after opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in prison or under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years.