Burma to release thousands of inmates

Activists wait to see if move will include political prisoners

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own