Yangon, Myanmar - The activists cracking jokes and ambling through the wards of Yangon General Hospital in Myanmar seemed too jovial to be political prisoners. They were detained by the military-backed regime for more than eight months, and had recently been transferred here from jail while they recovered from a hunger strike.

But as they leafed through newspapers and drank Ovaltine in the dilapidated colonial hospital, they held themselves like free men.

Myo Myat San, a gentle 25-year-old who has the word "peace" tattooed on his forearm in large letters, was on his way to visit a fellow inmate who had just arrived in the neighbouring ward. The plain-clothes policemen slouching in the corridor outside his room hardly seemed to notice him leave. When he found his friend he handed him a gift, a book entitled The Politics of Struggle.

"I like prison. I get to read a lot and talk about politics with other activists," said Myo Myat San. He had reason to be upbeat - Myanmar's political prisoners may well be on the brink of freedom.

The regime that jailed them for protesting in favour of education reform is on its way out. The party that activists have supported through decades of violent repression is, finally, on its way in.

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi dealt the ruling USDP party a humiliating defeat in a landmark November 8 poll, which saw her National League for Democracy party secure almost 80 percent of parliamentary seats.

"I truly believe I will be free when the NLD gets power," said Aung Hmaing San, 46, shortly after ending the hunger strike that he had led for three weeks starting in late October. As he spoke, his wife stood at his bedside and fed him sips of chicken broth, one of the few things he could stomach after so long without food.

Aung Hmaing San had only been drinking water since he staged the hunger strike in late October [Ann Wang/Al Jazeera]

Starving for freedom

Aung Hmaing San and five other hunger strikers had vowed to starve themselves until the military-backed government released every political prisoner in the country - just over 100 people. The government ignored their demands, but many believe this is now irrelevant.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing the military government, has promised to make releasing political prisoners a "top priority" when the NLD comes to power before the end of March.

Despite their optimism Aung Hmaing San and Myo Myat San, who have shared both a hospital room and a cell, were not celebrating yet. They were reluctant to stop their hunger strike even after receiving news of the NLD's landslide win. Many of their comrades were baffled, and some feared the hunger strikers might die waiting for the new NLD government to release them.

Eventually, nine days after the election and following a visit from Buddhist monks who took part in a democratic uprising in 2007, they agreed. But there was a caveat: "We have only stopped temporarily. We will wait and see what the current government does, and if nothing changes, we will start again," Myo Myat San had vowed.

"The power is still in the current regime's hands," said Aung Hmaing San's wife, Lei Lei Nwe, speaking the day before the hunger strike ended in mid-November, as her husband lay exhausted in bed.

The hunger strikers' reluctance stems from a deep mistrust of the military. Aung Hmaing San has, after all, seen the NLD win by a landslide before, in 1990. As a teenage activist he was too young to vote but helped the party with its campaign.

But the military ignored the election result and renewed its crackdown on pro-democracy campaigners. Just months after celebrating what he had thought was the start of a new era, Aung Hmaing San was arrested. That time, he spent almost four years in prison.

"We believed the military regime would transfer power to the NLD. It's a similar story now; the military promised not to interfere," he said. "I'm full of doubt but the regime can't make the same mistake they did in 1990."

Zayar Lwin, one of the student leaders from All Burma Federation of Student Unions, was arrested shortly after holding a demonstration on June 30 against military representation in parliament [Ann Wang/Al Jazeera]

This time it is different

The country's most powerful men are at pains to reassure skeptics that this time it is different. Than Shwe, Myanmar's former dictator, endorsed Aung San Suu Kyi as the country's "future leader" following a secret meeting earlier this month, according to his grandson.

Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be president under the constitution because her children are foreign-born, but she has vowed to lead as a de facto leader through her party.

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Almost five years of sweeping, yet fraught, reforms have led to this moment.

Since coming to power in 2011, President Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners. The move played a large role in convincing Western countries to lift sanctions, but he has repeatedly broken his promise to rid the country of political prisoners entirely.

At the end of October there were 112 political prisoners imprisoned in the country, and 486 activists awaiting trial for political actions, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a local rights group.

They include Myo Myat San, Aung Hmaing San and more than 60 of their fellow protesters, who were detained in a brutal crackdown on an education reform rally in the southern town of Letpadan in March and are still on trial. Riot police savagely beat demonstrators before trucking them to Tharrawaddy prison.

"We're going to bleed every drop of blood from your bodies," one officer had shouted as Myo Myat San cowered under batons and fists, the activist recalled.

Whoever becomes Aung San Suu Kyi's symbolic president next year will have the power to free prisoners with an amnesty, but the military will retain control of the police force and will directly appoint the minister for home affairs, who is responsible for the prison system.

Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK rights group, said the home affairs minister was "still technically answerable to the president" but that in practice he would be secure in his post and could "ignore instructions the military do not agree with".

"An urgent first step for the NLD government should be to repeal the repressive laws police use to arrest activists. This would limit, but not stop altogether, the ability of the police to make political arrests," he added.

Myo Myat San recovered at Yangon general hospital [Ann Wang/Al Jazeera]

Abuse in jails

Conditions in Myanmar's jails remain grim, even for high-profile political detainees. Just two days before jubilant voters queued at polling stations around the country, two of the students arrested at Letpadan were allegedly subjected to what the AAPP describes as "torture".

Si Thu Myant and Soe Hlaing were deprived of water, "covered in blankets and brutally beaten by prison guards" after joining Aung Hmaing San's hunger strike, according to a statement by the group. Unlike most of the education activists detained in Tharrawaddy prison, the pair are being kept 600km to the north in Myingyan.

Aung Hmaing San said that the guards did not beat him in Tharrawaddy, but he was placed in solitary confinement and forcibly injected with a drip needle. His wife believes the drip contained glucose to boost his strength before a court appearance the next day.

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Not everyone regarded as a prisoner of conscience is politically active. Some have been jailed for minor transgressions against Buddhism, the country's majority religion.

Two Burmese men and a New Zealander were convicted earlier this year for posting a picture online of a Buddha wearing headphones to promote their upscale bar. Their arrests followed outrage from Buddhist nationalists whose hateful rhetoric has fuelled massacres against Muslims.

Few doubt Aung San Suu Kyi's willingness to see democratic activists released, but to free those jailed for religious reasons she would have to stand up against a ferocious nationalist movement led by senior monks.

Aung San Suu Kyi has faced criticism for her failure to speak out in favour of Muslims, and for her reluctance to condemn a monk-led group named Ma Ba Tha. The organisation was accused of breaching election laws ahead of November's poll by using religion in an attempt to turn voters away from the NLD. Flyers allegedly distributed by Ma Ba Tha described the NLD as the party of "Islamists".

It clearly failed to sway voters, and has led many to doubt that the group has as much popular support as first feared. "The election result has shown the limits of real Ma Ba Tha influence," said Farmaner. "Hopefully now the NLD will stop kowtowing to them and start taking them on."

There is no sign of that yet. Win Htein, a close aide of Aung San Suu Kyi, seemed exasperated when asked over the phone by Al Jazeera if prisoners jailed for insulting Buddhism would also be freed.

He said his main concern was a peaceful transition of power, continuing a long-standing policy of near-silence on religious issues in the name of pragmatism.

"You cannot make the connection between Buddhism and political prisoners," he said. "That is absurd." 

Student leaders from All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) marched in memory of the violent crackdown by General Nay Win in 1962, in which hundreds of students were killed [Ann Wang/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera