YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar freed many of its most prominent political prisoners Friday in a long-awaited step toward national reconciliation that also has been a key condition set by Western nations for easing sanctions against the country.
The releases of several political activists and ethnic minority leaders, confirmed by their relatives, were part of a presidential pardon for 651 detainees who Myanmar state radio and television said would take part in "nation-building."
It was the latest in a flurry of reforms by the new, nominally civilian government as it seeks international legitimacy after years of military repression. The government also has launched a dialogue with pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and on Thursday signed a cease-fire in a decades-long insurgency by ethnic Karen rebels — both key conditions for better ties with the West.
The prisoner releases appeared to have gone most, if not all, of the way toward meeting demands by Western nations such as the United States and Britain for a broad political amnesty, and will put strong pressure on the West to lift sanctions soon.
However, the number of political prisoners who may still remain behind bars will likely take several days to account for, especially since different groups maintain different lists of such detainees.
Those freed Friday included Min Ko Naing, a nearly legendary student leader from Myanmar's failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
Witnesses said the charismatic activist was greeted by a huge crowd as he came out of the jail in Thayet, 545 kilometers (345 miles) north of Yangon. Min Ko Naing, who has now served two long prison terms, was wearing the traditional garb he favored as an activist: a short peach-colored jacket over a black-checked sarong.
Also freed was ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, the chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, who was serving a 93-year sentence. He was arrested along with several other Shan leaders in February 2005, and charged with high treason and other offenses after government accused him of launching movements to disintegrate national unity.
The new government that took office after November 2010 elections replaced a military junta with a government that remains strongly linked to the military.
However, the new government has embarked on reforms to try to end Myanmar's international isolation and win a lifting of political and economic sanctions imposed on the previous junta because of its repressive policies.
Recent reforms also include the legalization of labor unions, and increases in press freedom. Several previous mass amnesties for convicts had resulted in the release of more than 200 political detainees, but had met with disappointment because many high-profile prisoners were still kept behind bars.