Burma freed some of its most prominent political prisoners Friday in another sign that the government is moving to meet Western demands for lifting long-running diplomatic and economic sanctions.
The United States immediately moved to reestablish full diplomatic ties with the once-pariah nation as President Barack Obama welcomed the Burmese action as a "substantial step" toward democracy. Other Western governments and human rights groups also welcomed the action.
Leading student activists, a monk involved in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution," and a top ethnic minority leader were among the estimated 650 prisoners released under an amnesty by President Thein Sein, who took over in March last year as the head of a nominally civilian government after decades of harsh military rule.
“Based on our count, at least 240 political prisoners were released,” Aung Din, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told RFA.
“As the political prisoners were released from 42 prisons across the country, it will take some time to get the actual figure—[likely] in about a week,” he said.
Still, rights groups say it may be the most significant release of political prisoners yet under the new government.
Among those released were members of the 88 Generation Student Group that led a 1988 uprising, including leader Min Ko Naing, as well as Shin Gambira, a monk who led 2007 street protests, and Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo.
Others included 88 Generation Student Group members Nilar Thein, her husband Kyaw Min Yu, known as Ko Jimmy, as well as Htay Kywe, journalists Zaw Thet Htwe, Ngwe Soe Linn, Hla Hla Win, and blogger Nay Phone Latt.
Also on the release list was former prime minister and military intelligence boss Khin Nyunt, who was placed under house arrest in a 2004 power struggle.
International rights groups and Western nations have long made the release of political prisoners a precondition for the lifting of sanctions on Burma.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington had begun the process of reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Burma as a reward for the move, reiterating a statement she made during her visit to the country last December that the U.S. would “meet action with action.”
“This is a lengthy process, and it will, of course, depend on continuing progress and reform. But an American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding,” Clinton told reporters at a State Department briefing.
The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Burma following the military junta’s crackdown on democracy activists in 1988 and the regime’s failure to honor the results of a 1990 election that saw democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) win by a landslide.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the prisoner amnesty demonstrated a willingness on the part of the regime to commit to change.
"The release of all political prisoners is a long-standing demand of the international community and I warmly welcome these releases as a further demonstration of the Burmese government's commitment to reform," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton also welcomed the amnesty.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, had said earlier that her country was "on the verge of a breakthrough to democracy."
Human Rights Watch described the release as "a crucial development in promoting respect for human rights in Burma," but said that all remaining political prisoners should be freed immediately and unconditionally.
“Years of international calls to release long-detained political prisoners seem to have pushed the government to finally do the right thing,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The government should ensure that there are no obstacles to these activists participating in public life and upcoming elections.”
Pardoned political prisoners welcomed the amnesty, saying it was an indication that the government was ready to listen to the opposition’s ideas on how to build a new democratic society in Burma.
Student leader Ko Ko Gyi of the 88 Generation told RFA that his group would meet to begin studying the current political situation and to plot a new political agenda.
“Now, all 88 Generation Students who have been released from prison will gather together to discuss the future," he said.
Min Ko Naing, also of the 88 Generation, said that since his release he had been crowded by supporters “eager for democracy” and asking for his direction.
"The situation of the people is pretty good … their fear has been significantly reduced. This is the fruit of work done by democracy leaders and democracy activists who remained free while we were absent [in jail],” he said.
“The people are being very attentive and I am very satisfied with their support."
But another student leader Nilar Thein was more cautious.
"I welcome the amnesty and would like to be completely happy. But we still have friends in prison. There are two women and 23 men from [the 88 Generation] who remain in jail," she said.
Shan ethnic Leader Kun Tun Oo called the release a “step forward for democracy,” but also remained guarded in his expectations of the government’s reforms.
“There are still many political prisoners in jail and I demand their release. Some were arrested for trifling incidents and should be set free,” he said.
Kun Tun Oo said that he was in decent health, but added that political prisoners were routinely subjected to inhumane conditions while in confinement.
“In Putao prison it was very cold. On some nights the temperature reached -1 or -2 degrees C (28-30 degrees F)."
The U.S. State Department had estimated that at least 1,100 political prisoners were detained in Burma, while the Thai-based Association of Political Prisoners in Burma listed more than 1,500.
Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to allow international independent monitors to publicly account for all remaining political prisoners.
“The latest releases are wonderful news for the individuals and their families, but foreign governments should continue to push for the release of all political prisoners, and for international monitors to verify the process,” said Pearson.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translation by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Joshua Lipes.