Myanmar frees hundreds of political prisoners

State media reports release of 651 political prisoners, including leader of 1988 pro-democracy uprising and an ex-PM.

Myanmar reforms

Myanmar’s government has begun releasing hundreds of prisoners, including many political detainees, pro-democracy activists say, as the country takes further steps towards political reform and ending its international isolation.

Myanmar state radio and television said on Friday that 651 detainees were being freed to take part in “nation-building”.

There was no official word on how many political prisoners would be included in the total, but among them was Sai Nyunt Lwin, 60, a prominent ethnic minority Shan politician, and Khin Nyunt, a former prime minister and military intelligence chief, a senior prison official said.

Min Ko Naing, the leader of a pro-democracy student uprising in 1988, and Shin Gambira, a well-known Buddhist monk who led 2007 street protests, were also reported to have been freed.

Witnesses said the charismatic student leader was greeted by a huge crowd as he left prison in Thayet, 545km north of Yangon.

Myanmar democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party welcomed the amnesty granted by the government, describing it as a “positive sign”.

“We welcome the release. Some [dissidents] are on their way home already,” said a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, confirming the release of at least 100 political detainees.

‘Real change’

Khin Maung Win, the deputy editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition media group based in Norway, told Al Jazeera the country’s most recent release of political prisoners was much more “genuine” than previous ones.

“Today it was a ‘real’ release of political prisoners that many people have been waiting for,” he said.

He also said it was the latest in a series of democratic reforms and that the country was “moving forward to real political change”.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, also applauded Myanmar’s prisoner releases on Friday, saying the development was part of “historic and promising steps unfolding”. 

“Many of the people released today have distinguished themselves as steadfast and courageous leaders in the fight for democracy and human rights in critical times in recent history.”

She also said that the US government would continue to work with Myanmar to ensure that all of the country’s remaining political detainees are released as well.

An official from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State said two other prominent dissidents, Ko Jimmy and Ko Zaw Thet Htwe, would also be released.

“We are going to take them to the bus terminal later this morning,” the official said.

Phyo Min Thein, brother-in-law of Ko Htay Kywe, another leader of the 1988 demonstrations, said he had received confirmation that Ko and almost all prominent members of his student protest group would be released.

‘Quite revolutionary’

Bridget Welsh, an Myanmar analyst at Singapore Management University, told Al Jazeera the identities of those released was very significant.

“They represent really key parts of opposition that are being released: ethnic minorities, the ‘Generation 88’ movement and also the monks that were part of the protests in 2007. This is quite revolutionary.

“I think there are two things that are very important. First you have a reformer president who is actually pushing for change and trying to get external legitimacy for the government,” Welsh said.

“The other key issue that’s important is that there have been a lot of international engagements with the US and the UK holding dialogue, and that’s bearing fruit.

“If you look at the regime in terms of the steps it is taking, they are being quite bold and forward looking in terms of opening up political reforms.”

Flurry of reforms

The release of political prisoners could help pave the way for the lifting of economic sanctions by the European Union and the US following a flurry of reforms since Myanmar’s civilian government was allowed to take power in March after almost half a century of military rule.

Some political prisoners have already been freed, media restrictions eased and the government has initiated a dialogue with Suu Kyi. On Thursday, the government signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels after decades of civil conflict.

Clinton welcomed the ceasefire agreement as a step to reaching national reconciliation.

“It is in that spirit that I urge the government to enter into meaningful dialogue with all ethnic groups to achieve national reconciliation, to allow news media and humanitarian groups access to ethnic areas.” she said.

Last month, Clinton became the first US secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years and said Washington stood ready to support reforms in the country and possibly lift sanctions.

The next major step in the reform process will be by-elections already announced by the government and set for April, in which Suu Kyi and her party will take part.

The US and Europe have said freeing political prisoners is crucial to even considering lifting sanctions that have isolated the former British colony, previously known as Burma, and pushed it closer to China.

The exact number of political prisoners is unclear, although estimates by rights groups and unofficial statements by the home affairs minister range from about 400 to about 2,000.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies