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Myanmar frees more political prisoners

January 13, 2012 |  3:04 am

Myanmar on Friday was in the process of releasing over 600 prisoners, including many high-profile political detainees

REPORTING FROM BANGKOK, THAILAND AND NEW DELHI, INDIA -- Myanmar on Friday was in the process of releasing over 600 prisoners, including many high-profile political detainees, a further step in the military-led government's bid to engage with the outside world and pave the way for an end to economic sanctions.

Among those released are members of the 88 Generation, students who led or participated in the 1988 uprising that was followed by a massive crackdown.

Late Thursday, state media in Myanmar, also known as Burma, announced the move, involving 651 prisoners, "to participate in the task of nation building."

It follows the release of more than 100 political prisoners in October under a "humanitarian" amnesty. The U.S. State Department estimates that the long-isolated nation has at least 1,100 political prisoners; the Thailand-based Assn. of Political Prisoners in Burma puts the number at more than 1,500.

Among those released were 88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing and Htay Kywe and anti-government activist Nilar Thein and her husband, Kyaw Min Yu, also known as Ko Jimmy. Others include Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, Buddhist monk leader U Gambira, three journalists and blogger Nay Phone Latt.

This is "a glorious day for Burma, freedom is reborn now," Htein Lin, an artist and former political prisoner in a Mandalay jail, said by email.

Civic groups welcomed the news but called on the regime to release all remaining political prisoners. "The next step for Burma's government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners," Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised the political-detainee issue during her visit to Myanmar in December, as did British Foreign Secretary William Hague on his trip last week. Western nations have cited the release of political prisoners, free and fair elections and peace with dozens of ethnic groups as conditions for lifting U.S. and European Union economic sanctions.

The regime also said Thursday that it signed a ceasefire agreement with ethnic Karen rebels in the east of the country, a significant step toward ending one of the world's longest-running insurgencies. The Karen, accounting for about 7% of Myanmar’s population, have waged a guerrilla campaign for independence for more than 60 years.


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-- Simon Roughneen and Mark Magnier

Photo: Former Burmese prime minister and military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, who was detained in 2004 after a power struggle, is released from house arrest as part of an amnesty for 651 political prisoners. Credit: Htoo Tay Zar / EPA