YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar will release 651 prisoners starting Friday under a new presidential pardon, with anticipation mounting that many of those to be freed will be political detainees.
Myanmar state radio and television said Thursday evening the prisoners would be freed so they can participate in the task of nation-building. It did not identify them, but that description could be construed to apply to political prisoners.
The unusual timing also hinted that the long-awaited release of political detainees may occur. It comes less than two weeks after the government freed 6,656 convicts under an amnesty and reduced the sentences of 38,964 others through a clemency order.
Only 13 political detainees were among those freed, to general disappointment during a time of rising expectations due to the much-touted reforms made by the new military-backed but elected government that took office last year.
Relatives of detainees and Myanmar journalists began traveling late Thursday night to some of the far-flung prisons where political detainees are held.
"I think the government is releasing the prisoners apparently because the recent clemency order was strongly criticized by us and the international community. We have to wait and see how many political prisoners will be released tomorrow," said Ohn Kyaing, spokesman for the opposition National League of Democracy party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Many of those being held are members of the party.
The NLD has long sought the prisoner releases, which are also a key demand of the United States and other countries for lifting sanctions imposed on Myanmar for the repressive policies of its previous military regime.
The reform effort, which included actions such as the limited prisoner releases, legalization of labor unions and some easing of restrictions on freedom of expression, had seemed to flag in recent months, even after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in December and her British counterpart, William Hague, visited last week to encourage it.
Amnesties under the new government that freed more than 27,000 convicts since last May were disappointing as they included only 200 or so political detainees. Current estimate of political prisoners range from about 600 to 1,500, though the government insists no one falls into the category because they are simply criminal convicts.
"For the sake of state peace and stability, national consolidation and to enable everyone to participate in political process and on humanitarian grounds, the government will grant amnesty to 651 prisoners so that they can take part in nation building," Thursday's TV announcement said.
Among prominent prisoners are ethnic party leaders, activists from pro-democracy uprisings in 1988 and 2007, and relatives of the country's former leader, the late Gen. Ne Win.
Some of the more prominent prisoners who could be released include Khun Tun Oo, the chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, who is serving a 93-year sentence after being arrested for treason in 2005; Min Ko Naing, a nearly legendary student leader from the 1988 uprising that was bloodily crushed by the army; and U Gambira, a Buddhist monk and organizer of the failed 2007 'Saffron Revolution.'
Min Ko Naing's sister Kyi Kyi Nyunt, who had been disappointed by the failure to release her brother in previous amnesties, said she didn't want to speculate anymore and would believe her sibling is released only when he gets back home.
Fresh momentum for reform was gained Thursday when a cease-fire pact was concluded with the Karen National Union, a group which has been fighting for decades for autonomy from the central government. Reaching political settlements with the country's fractious ethnic minorities is crucial for the country's peace and stability, and continuing fighting with the Kachin minority in the country's north could pose a major impediment to national reconciliation.