Burma releases prominent prisoners

 

Burma freed some of its most famous political inmates today, sparking jubilation outside prison gates while signalling its readiness to comply with demands from the US and its allies for a lifting of economic sanctions.

Among those released were prominent political activists, the leaders of brutally repressed democratic uprisings, a former prime minister, ethnic minority leaders, journalists and relatives of the former dictator Ne Win.

The releases were part of a presidential pardon for 651 detainees who state radio and television said would take part in "nation-building".

It was the latest in a flurry of accelerating changes in Burma sought by the West, including the recent launching of a dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and yesterday's signing of a ceasefire in a long-running campaign against Karen insurgents.

Burma probably now feels the ball is the West's court to lift the crippling economic measures.

But the US and allies may wait to see if government truces with various ethnic rebel groups hold, discussions with Ms Suu Kyi move forward and scheduled April elections appear free and fair.

"I think we are close to the removal of Western sanctions," said Monique Skidmore, an expert on Burma from the University of Canberra, adding that the US and others might first wait to see Ms Suu Kyi take a seat in parliament.

"There's a sense that there's still more to go before the sanctions will be removed."

Human Rights Watch called today's release "a crucial development" in promoting human rights in Burma but stressed that an unknown number of political prisoners remain detained.

The group called for their release and urged the government to allow international monitors to enter prisons to verify the numbers and whereabouts of those still jailed.

Until today, as many as 1,500 political prisoners were believed to be behind bars, by some counts, and it may be some days before the exact tally of those released today is known.

Ms Suu Kyi's party said it was expecting the release of many of the 600 dissidents it tracks.

"The release of such a large number of political prisoners demonstrates the government's will to solve political problems through political means," said Win Tin, a senior member of Ms Suu Kyi's party who previously spent 19 years in prison but was released under a 2008 amnesty.

Among the high-profile inmates released were Min Ko Naing, a nearly legendary student leader from Burma's failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Cheers and applause erupted outside the Thayet prison, 345 miles (545KM) north of Rangoon, where a huge crowd gathered to see the charismatic activist.

Mr Naing, leader of the 88 Generation Students Group, was serving a 65-year sentence. His most recent arrest came in August 2007 along with 14 other student leaders at a protest against fuel price increases that preceded the monk-led Saffron Revolution, which was violently suppressed.

Activists arrested after the abortive 2007 Saffron Revolution - named after the colour of the robes worn by the country's Buddhist monks - were also freed today.

Among them were Shin Gambira, 32, a militant monk who helped lead the anti-government protests. Family members said he told them he was in good health.

Also freed was ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, who was serving a 93-year sentence. He was arrested along with several other Shan leaders in February 2005 and charged with treason.

Traditional Shan music blasted from speakers outside his family home in Yangon, where a crowd danced as they awaited his return from prison.

The government recently signed a preliminary ceasefire agreement with Shan rebels, among several other pacts to end ethnic fighting. The Shan Herald Agency for News, an online news site close to the rebels, said five or six Shan political prisoners were freed today.

Jailed former prime minister Khin Nyunt also was freed. He was ousted in 2004 after falling out of favour with the junta and convicted a year later of insubordination and corruption and sentenced to 44 years under house arrest.

"The democratic process is on the right track," the 73-year-old told reporters in Rangoon, saying he did not plan to return to politics.

The US, members of the European Union and Canada are among nations that have imposed sanctions on Burma. The US and Britain have previously said they would remain in place until more political prisoners are released.

"The United States wants to be a partner with Burma," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during her recent historic visit to Burma.

"We want to work with you as you further democratisation, as you release all political prisoners, as you begin the difficult but necessary process of ending the ethnic conflicts that have gone on far too long, as you hold elections that are free, fair, and credible."

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