Thousands of prisoners are due to be released by the authorities in Burma today in a move that could mark a crucial move towards greater democracy by the new government.
Campaigners and opposition politicians in Burma said last night they were waiting to see how many of the 6,300 inmates to be set free would be political prisoners. If those freed are simply common criminals, the step will be largely meaningless.
But if a large number are prisoners of conscience, it will be perhaps the most significant liberalising measure 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 it's 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 are activists who took part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and 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, Ms Suu Kyi has made the release of political prisoners one of her party's non-negotiable demands. The NLD is technically "unregistered", though the Nobel laureate, who still has vast support among ordinary people, has held several meetings with government officials, including the recently appointed President Thein Sein.
Mr Thein Sein has emerged as the moderate public face of the purportedly civilian government. Last month, a series of censored websites were unblocked and an interview with Ms Suu Kyi appeared in a Burmese magazine. And last week, the President announced that a multibillion-dollar hydro-electric dam project with China on the Irrawaddy was to be halted as it was "against the will of the people".
Campaigners point out that the Burmese authorities, who claimed to have switched to a civilian-led government earlier this year, have previously released prisoners en masse. But political prisoners such as Min Ko Naing, a student leader jailed in 1989 for 15 years only to be sentenced to 65 years after being re-arrested in 2007, are rarely among them. In May, an amnesty for 14,000 inmates included just 47 political prisoners; rights activists called it a token gesture.
"[There has been] no word on how many political prisoners [will be released], although we've heard via diplomatic sources that the 88 Generation Students leaders probably wouldn't be released this time, but later," said one Thailand-based observer of Burma, who asked not to be named.
According to the state-media announcement yesterday , 6,359 inmates will be released as part of a humanitarian amnesty issued by Mr Thein Sein for inmates who were old, disabled or unwell, or who had shown good "moral behaviour". A body established last month by Thein Sein published an open letter calling on the government to release political prisoners who were no longer a threat to the country. The letter's publication in the state media suggests the approval of the highest levels of government.
The US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell, told an audience in Thailand on Monday that "dramatic developments [were] under way" in Burma: "We are looking forward to continuing a dialogue that has really stepped up in recent months."