Burma released several hundred political prisoners on Wednesday as part of a mass prisoner amnesty program amid reforms touted by the new nominally-civilian government but some key dissidents remained locked up.
Among the most prominent dissidents freed was comedian Zarganar, who was arrested in June 2008 and sentenced to 59 years in a remote prison.
He had criticized the then-military junta for their weak response to a cyclone disaster that killed more than 140,000 people.
Also released were Sai Say Htan, an ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 104 years in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new constitution, and local activist Su Su Nway, who was serving a 12-year jail term since 2008.
Fresh from his release, Zarganar remained critical of the government, saying that authorities should have freed many more of the nearly 2,000 political prisoners still languishing in Burmese jails.
Among top dissidents still in jail are Min Ko Naing and fellow student activists who led a failed 1988 uprising, rights groups said.
Zarganar said, “I believed that true change was on its way, but now I am doubtful.”
“Instead, I am asking myself whether anything has changed at all because a good number of my friends are still in prison,” the comedian said, questioning the government’s commitment to reforms and national reconciliation.
Human Rights Watch, a U.S. rights watchdog, said at least 120 political prisoners had been released, while Reuters news agency quoted a senior prison official as saying that a total of 300 political prisoners were freed.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma, a group pushing for political reforms, said it could confirm that 206 political prisoners, including 28 monks, were released from various prisons.
State television announced on Tuesday that more than 6,300 elderly, sick, disabled or well-behaved prisoners would be granted an amnesty from Wednesday "on humanitarian grounds."
It said freeing detainees would allow them to "help to build a new nation."
Human rights groups and opposition leaders have called for all the estimated 2,000 political prisoners to be freed to underscore the end of repression in Burma after decades of iron-fisted military rule.
Prisoners for sanctions?
Burmese President Thein Sein, seen as a reformer in a newly-elected government largely consisting of retired military generals, has introduced a series of reforms and launched talks with the opposition, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in an apparent bid to get mostly Western nations to dismantle longstanding political and economic sanctions.
It is believed that the sanctions will be fully lifted only if all key political dissidents were released and the government forges peace with armed ethnic groups seeking greater autonomy, analysts say.
"We hope many more will be released," said Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, herself freed from 15 years of house arrest last year. "I'm really thankful for the release of political prisoners," she told supporters.
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said the international community, including the United States, should “respond strongly” to the Burmese authorities that the release of political prisoners was “insufficient and unsatisfactory."
The Burmese government should also be asked to allow the International Red Cross to visit all prisons to help political prisoners languishing under harsh conditions in Burma, Aung Din said.
Kyi Nyunt, jailed student leader Min Ko Naing’s sister, also lamented that the number of political prisoners released was far less than she had expected.
“Nobody from the 65-year Group [student activists who had been handed 65-year jail terms] was released. If there is a matter of going in, there should be a matter of going out as well,” she said.
Oo Sai Laik, a spokesperson for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said Sai Say Htan was the only Shan political prisoner released under the amnesty move.
“Family members contacted their respective prison authorities and were informed that Sai Nyunt Lwin, Khun Hto Oo, Sai Hlay Aung, and Oo Htun Nyo were not included in the release. They’ve said nothing definite, but told us more amnesty is to follow,” Oo said, referring to other Shan political prisoners.
“In building trust between the public and the authorities, the government should grant amnesty to everyone. Only then will we see national reconciliation and true peace.”
Monk still held
Initial reports that Shin Gambira, a Buddhist monk and prominent leader of street marches in 2007 that were violently suppressed, was released turned out to be untrue.
His mother, Daw Yay, whose younger son was released from prison today, said she had no information on whether Shin Gambira would be set free.
“I asked the prison warden whether Shin Gambira would be released and he simply said no,” she said.
“Not only do I want him released, but I want all political prisoners released as well … If the government truly wants a democratic system, they must release all of them. I truly hope we will see more people set free before the end of this year.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to ensure that all prisoners sentenced for peaceful political activities, regardless of whether charges stemmed from security laws or criminal charges designed to suppress dissent, are immediately and unconditionally released.
The political prisoners who were released "have suffered immeasurably and should never have been put in Burma’s miserable jails in the first place,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The laws that put them behind bars are still on the books and can be used again at any time," she said, calling on the government to convene parliament and repeal laws criminalizing peaceful political speech.Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.