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Prisoner release may point to democracy


Thousands of prisoners are today due to be released by the authorities in Burma in a move that could mark a crucial move towards greater democracy by the new government.

Campaigners and opposition politicians said last night they were waiting to see how many of the 6,300 inmates due to be set free were political prisoners. If they are simply common criminals, the step will be largely meaningless.

But if a considerable number of those allowed home are prisoners of conscience, it would represent the latest – and perhaps the most significant – in a series of liberalising measures undertaken by the authorities since the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest last year. "The statement was put out that more than 6,000 prisoners will be released," Win Tin, a senior member of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), said last night from Rangoon. "We don't know whether this means its just criminals or whether there will be political prisoners."

Campaigners believe there are up to 2,000 political prisoners in Burma's jails, among them activists who took part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and others, such as the campaigner and comedian Zarganar, who was jailed after organising aid for the victims of the Cyclone Nargis, which tore through the Irrawaddy delta in 2008.

Since her release last year after seven years of house arrest, Ms Suu Kyi has insisted to the authorities that the release of political prisoners is one of her party's non-negotiable demands and something that must be done if Burma is to progress towards genuine democracy.