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Myanmar to release prisoners soon

October 11, 2011 | 10:46 am

REPORTING FROM IMPHAL, INDIA, AND BANGKOK, THAILAND -- Myanmar announced plans Tuesday to release more than 6,300 prisoners in the latest of several modest reform steps taken by the long-isolated nation, although it wasn’t immediately clear how many of those freed would be political detainees.

Human rights groups, dissident organizations and analysts welcomed the move but said they remained skeptical that a fundamental change was underway. The military regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has ruled the country with an iron fist for decades.

“We’re basically dealing with the same creature, with slightly more enlightened posturing,” said Zarni, Founder of the London-based Free Burma Coalition, an activist group. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves that the regime is driven by reformers.”

Myanmar President Thein Sein granted amnesty to 6,359 prisoners, with their release set to begin on Wednesday, a statement over Myanmar state radio and television said. Wednesday is a religious holiday in Myanmar.

While on-screen text during the announcement repeated the oft-cited line that the country has no political prisoners, only criminals, another official source seemed to suggest a number of such detainees would be released.

Tuesday’s edition of the New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a government mouthpiece, published a plea from the country’s newly formed Human Rights Commission urging the president to release “prisoners of conscience.”

The country has an estimated 2,000 political prisoners, many of whom have been in jail for extended periods, including pro-democracy activists, government critics, reporters, members of ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy and monks involved in 2007 anti-government protests.

Earlier this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said in Bangkok there have been dramatic developments in Burma, although Washington is waiting for more substantial moves.

"We are prepared for a new chapter in our relations," he said. "And, I think it would be fair to say that we will match their steps with comparable steps."

Analysts said the prisoner release, assuming it includes political dissidents, appears aimed at boosting economic growth and convincing the West to end sanctions that have hurt the junta and its cronies.


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-- Mark Magnier in Imphal and Simon Roughneen in Bangkok

Photo: Myanmar police officers stand guard at the entrance of Insein prison in Yangon. Credit:  Khin Maung Win / Associated Press