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.
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 was Sai Say Htan, an ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 104 years in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new constitution.
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.
Many more remained in jail, including Min Ko Naing and other student activists who led a failed 1988 uprising, rights group said.
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 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.
Hope for more releases
“We hope many more will be released,” said pro-democracy leader 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 number of political prisoners released “is still short of what we have expected in terms of numbers and quality.”
He said that the international community, including the United States, “should respond strongly that this release as insufficient and unsatisfactory.”
“The U.S. State Department should demand the Burmese government to continue to release remaining political prisoners to prove its sincerity and commitment for democratization and national reconciliation in Burma.”
The State Department also should urge the Burmese government to allow the International Red Cross to visit all prisons to help political prisoners.
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.
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.
Recently, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin had asked the international community to lift long imposed sanctions on his country when he spoke about the prospect of prisoners being released at the UN.
The United States and several other Western governments have been pushing the government led by President Thein Sein to release all political prisoners and forge peace with ethnic armed groups to underline its seriousness in embracing reforms and strengthening democracy.
Although the new government formed after November elections has introduced several reforms, it is believed that foreign governments will relax all political and economic sanctions on the country only if the two key issues are resolved, some analysts say.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.