YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar freed many of its 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 so that they could take part in what Myanmar state radio and television said would be "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 of President Thein Sein 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, as many as 1,500 political prisoners were behind bars by some counts and the exact tally of those released Friday likely will take several days. Suu Kyi's party said it was expecting the release of many of the 600 dissidents it tracks.
"The release of such a large number of political prisoners demonstrates the government's will to solve political problems through political means," said Win Tin, a senior member of Suu Kyi's party who previously spent 19 years in prison but was released under a 2008 amnesty.
High-profile inmates confirmed released 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 treason.
The government recently signed a preliminary cease-fire agreement with Shan rebels, among several other pacts to end ethnic fighting. The Shan Herald Agency for News, an online news site close to the rebels, said five or six Shan political prisoners were freed Friday.
The new government that took office after November 2010 elections replaced a military junta, but remains strongly linked with the military. However, the new administration has embarked on reforms to try to end Myanmar's international isolation and win a lifting of political and economic sanctions imposed on the 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 hundreds were believed to still be behind bars.
The United States, members of the European Union and Canada are among nations that have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar. The U.S. and Britain have previously said they would remain in place until more political prisoners are released.
Min Ko Naing, leader of the "88 Generation Students Group," was serving a 65-year sentence. He was most recently arrested in August 2007 along with 14 other student leaders at a protest against fuel price increases that preceded the monk-led Saffron Revolution, which was violently suppressed.
Many of the 88 Generation students were at the forefront of a 1988 pro-democracy uprising and sentenced to lengthy prison terms but were freed in 2004. Almost all of them were arrested again since then, after resuming their political activities.
Activists arrested after the abortive 2007 Saffron Revolution — named after the color of the robes worn by the country's Buddhist monks — were also freed Friday.
They included Shin Gambira, 32, a militant monk who helped lead the anti-government protests and kept speaking out from hiding afterward until he was finally tracked down and arrested. His younger brother said he told his mother that he was well and that he planned to re-ordain as a monk after being freed from prison in Myaung Mya in the Irrawaddy Delta southwest of Yangon. Arrested people are forced to leave the monkhood.
Others released who were among the 2007 activists included student leader Kyaw Min Yu, known as Jimmy, and his wife, Nilar Thein, who were also serving 65-year prison sentences, relatives said.