Celebrations erupted outside prison gates across Burma yesterday as the authorities took another step out of isolation and released scores of political prisoners, a move US President Barack Obama hailed as a "substantial" shift towards democracy.
From Mandalay prison in the north to Putao jail near the Chinese border and the Thayet complex north-west of Rangoon, relatives and supporters cheered and clapped at scenes that until very recently would have been unimaginable. At the same time, observers warned that many political prisoners remained behind bars.
"It's connected with the attempt in the country to bring peace and solve the problems," said Win Tin, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and himself a former political prisoner. "I think the government realised that if they did not release the prisoners, it would create problems with the foreign governments and with political parties such as the NLD."
Ms Suu Kyi, along with the succession of foreign diplomats who have visited Burma recently, made clear that political prisoners had to be released before there could be full engagement or the lifting of sanctions.
Mr Obama called the mass release "a substantial step forward for democratic reform" and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, quickly announced that the US will exchange ambassadors with Burma. American interests had been represented by a charge d'affaires for more than two decades.
Last night there was some confusion as to precisely how many political prisoners had been released. The government said 651 prisoners had been set free and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) media organisation – which had five of its imprisoned reporters set free – suggested they were all prisoners of conscience. Amnesty International said at least 130 political prisoners had been set free while the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an organisation based in neighbouring Thailand, put the figure at around 200. "Right now, many more prisoners are waiting to be released. It's important to have the release of all the political prisoners," said association official Aung Khaing Min.
Those released included Min Ko Naing, the so-called "Conqueror of Kings" who was involved in the 1988 democracy uprising; Shin Gambira, a 32-year-old Buddhist monk who helped lead the 2007 Saffron Revolution that the army violently suppressed; and Khun Tun Oo, a leader of the Shan ethnic group. A former Prime Minister, Khin Nyunt, who fell out of favour in 2004, was released from house arrest.
Some of the loudest celebrations took place outside Thayet prison, 350 miles north of Rangoon, where a large crowd had gathered to see Min Ko Naing walk free. He was serving a 65-year sentence, having been arrested in the summer of 2007 as he led protests over fuel prices that took place before the Saffron Revolution. The activist told The Irrawaddy website that it was vital that other political prisoners be set free immediately and voiced concerns about continuing clashes between the Burmese army and ethnic groups.
Shin Gambira was set free from Myaungmya prison, located more than 400 miles from where his family lived. He told DVB that he had been forced to endure solitary confinement and wretched conditions.
"Burma still has a long way to go," he said. "Although they are releasing prisoners now, they still have characteristics of the dictatorship."