Myanmar's Suu Kyi vows to press for political prisoner release

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Yangon (AFP)

Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday vowed to press for the release of political prisoners and student activists, hinting that a mass amnesty may be imminent as her government seeks to stamp its mark on power in the former junta-run nation.

Suu Kyi's administration, stacked full of democracy activists who spent years incarcerated by the military, took power last week, ending nearly half a century of repressive army domination.

In her first statement since assuming a new, broadly-defined role as state counsellor, Suu Kyi said: "I am going to try... for the immediate release of political prisoners, political activists and students facing trial related to politics".

She did not provide a specific timeline in the statement, which was posted on Facebook.

The routine jailing of dissidents was one of the most egregious acts of the former junta, stirring international outcry and support for Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement.

Suu Kyi herself spent about 15 years under house arrest and many current National League for Democracy lawmakers served time in the country's notorious prisons.

While the quasi-civilian government that replaced the junta in 2011 freed hundreds of political detainees, it also oversaw the detention of scores more, particularly those involved in land and education protests.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 90 political prisoners were in jail and more than 400 activists were facing trial as of February.

The majority were arrested before last November's landmark elections, which Suu Kyi's NLD won in a landslide.

- Raising hopes -

Among them are about 40 students facing a mix of charges, including unlawful assembly and rioting over education reform protests in March 2015 that were violently broken up by baton-wielding police in the central town of Letpadan.

Another 30 or so students are on bail but facing similar charges.

The students present a special case because while many have been detained for over a year, their trial is ongoing.

To free them, Suu Kyi's statement indicated that the state prosecutor could decide to drop the charges.

The father of detained student activist Phyo Phyo Aung expressed hope that his daughter could be freed.

"I am very glad to hear that (Suu Kyi) will work for their release. I think she is doing the right thing," Ne Win told AFP.

Suu Kyi is barred from the presidency by the junta-era constitution and has anointed her school friend and close aide Htin Kyaw to act as her effective proxy.

That means she does not have the direct power to order an amnesty, but it signals that a presidential order is likely to follow.

In the first few days of her new government she has already shown her determination to live up to a pre-election vow to rule "above" Myanmar's president.

The role of state counsellor, which was signed off by Htin Kyaw on Wednesday, was specially crafted for her and enables her to wield influence over parliament as well as in the cabinet.

She is also foreign minister and held talks with her Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, prioritising Beijing in the first foray into international diplomacy under the new government.

Myanmar's new administration inherits a country in the grip of its most fundamental political transformation since the military seized power in 1962.

Reforms since 2011 have opened the once-cloistered nation to foreign investment and tourism, helping spark an economic resurgence.

But there are many hurdles ahead, including a deeply flawed legal system, the continuing clout of the army, high poverty rates and civil wars in serval ethnic minority states.