There will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar – President

Britain Prime Minister David Cameron welcomes Myanmar President Thein Sein at London’s Chatham House

President Thein Sein delivered a key note speech at London’s Chatham House on Monday in which he spoke about a nation-wide ceasefire with armed groups and pledged to release all political prisoners by the end of the year.

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The president was on his first ever visit to the United Kingdom as part of a two-nation tour of the UK and France to discuss the government’s reform agenda, international aid and democracy.

“I guarantee to you that by the end of this year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,” said the president in his speech to distinguished guests at London’s Chatham House.

Hundreds of political prisoners have been released since 2011 after President Thein Sein’s government came to office and embarked on a political and economic reform programme with an aim to end years military rule and isolation. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organisation run by former political prisoners, there are at least 164 political prisoners still behind bars in Myanmar.

The president also spoke about his government’s efforts to secure a nation-wide ceasefire with armed groups to reach a peaceful solution to decades of ethnic conflict. The government hopes to sign an agreement with the Kachin Independence Organisation in the next few weeks which will mark the first time in nearly 60 years that the country has not been at war.

“Very possible in the coming weeks we will have a nation-wide ceasefire in Myanmar and the guns will go silent for the first time in over sixty years,” said the President.

President Thein Sein acknowledged the complex issues at stake in moving towards a durable peace process. Questions of regional autonomy, self-determination, the sharing of resources and reform of the armed forces are at the heart of many of the grievances that have prolonged the conflict with over a dozen ethnic armed groups.

“Please imagine the complexities of any peace process then multiply it by twelve,” said the president.

Many minority ethnic groups claim the need for political dialogue with the government to achieve a sustainable peace and have been advocating for a federal solution, something which will involve constitutional reforms.

During an earlier meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday, President Thein Sein was urged to take action to end religious violence between Buddhists and Muslims. The President in his speech echoed earlier remarks he made on Myanmar’s national radio saying that he would not tolerate those found instigating violence.

“I promise you that we will take a zero tolerance approach against any renewed violence and against those who fuel ethnic hatred,” said the President.

In his speech the president made clear that as part of a new era of Anglo-Myanmar relations, he wanted the two countries to work together to build a lasting partnership but insisted that he did not want Myanmar to become an aid dependent country. He urged investors to work responsibly to help Myanmar develop in a way that does not fuel corruption and helps to alleviate poverty.

“We must free our markets and open the doors to foreign trade and investment, but in a way that ensures that poverty is reduced and that ordinary farmers and workers clearly benefit,” said the President.

“We wish to avoid the so called resource curse and make sure that revenue from our natural wealth is used to reduce poverty and not fuel corruption,” he added.

The President delivered his speech at an event titled: Myanmar’s Complex Transformation: Prospects and Challenges, hosted by Chatham House, the prestigious London-based think tank. The event was chaired by Lord Williams of Baglan, Acting Head of the Chatham House Asia Programme.

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