Myanmar’s president ordered on Monday the release from jail of a top ethnic rebel leader to allow him to join peace talks, his lawyer said, just six days after he was sentenced to life imprisonment for high treason.
Phado Man Nyein Maung, a senior political figure in the Karen National Union (KNU), was freed from the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon and taken to the new capital, Naypyitaw, to meet senior government officials.
“I heard the peace talks between the KNU and the government will resume in the first week of April and Phado Man Nyein Maung is expected to take part in it,” Kyi Myint, his lawyer, told Reuters.
Phado Man Nyein Maung, 70, was convicted on March 13 under Myanmar’s Illegal Association Act for his involvement in a long-running rebellion and was expected to serve at least 20 years in prison.
His release comes amid dialogue between Myanmar’s civilian government and more than a dozen separatist groups in pursuit of “everlasting peace” after decades of fighting in the ethnically diverse, resource-rich country.
Western nations have made a successful peace process with separatists one of their main demands for lifting sanctions that have denied the impoverished country billions of dollars worth of aid and investment.
The KNU has fought for secession from the state since Myanmar was granted independence from Britain in 1948 and alongside its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), it agreed a truce with state negotiators on January 12.
Preliminary ceasefires have been agreed with 12 of the 16 armed ethnic groups or political organisations that have responded to President Thein Sein’s appeal last August for all sides to start dialogue.
Thein Sein has outlined a three-step plan towards peace with the rebel groups, starting with ceasefires, resettlement of refugees and political talks, then parliamentary procedures to formalise the deals.
The KNU is expected to be the first group to reach the second stage of the process and political talks, which could involve some form of decentralisation, are expected to start in April. Parliamentary by-elections will also be held in April.
Phado Man Nyein Maung has been jailed at least two occasions under former military regimes. The new government has released more than 600 political prisoners since last May.