Burma has released numerous prominent political prisoners in a significant step toward ending Western economic sanctions against the country. The presidential amnesty was cautiously welcomed by rights groups who warned dissidents still lack legal protections.
Authorities in Burma Friday said a total of 651 prisoners would be released under an amnesty endorsed by President Thein Sein to foster national reconciliation.
They include some of the most prominent jailed leaders of failed democracy movements, former officials who fell out of favor, and journalists.
Among them was the student leader of Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising Min Ko Naing, leader of the 2007 Buddhist monk protests, U Gambira, and ethnic Shan leader Khun Tun Oo, who was serving a 93-year-sentence for sedition.
Authorities also released former prime minister and spy chief Khin Nyunt who was purged in 2004 along with dozens of his colleagues.
Aung Khaing Min, who is with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, says the group welcomes the releases and expect altogether around 400 political prisoners to be given back their freedom. But he cautions, unlike past amnesties, their sentences were only suspended and not commuted.
"If the government wants to imprison them again, yes they can because the term of the release is just temporary or just postponement of the sentence," he said.
The AAPPB says despite the release of prominent political prisoners there are still hundreds more behind bars.
Burma’s military-backed government refuses to officially recognize political prisoners, labeling them as common criminals.
Aung Khaing Min says prisoners affiliated with armed ethnic groups or jailed under immigration laws would not be included in the release. He adds there are several laws that need to change to prevent more dissidents from being locked up.
"Electronics Transactions Act, for example, was enacted in 2004, designed to imprison political activists with longer sentences," he added. "And, for example, Article 71 and 72, Unlawful Association Act, those are commonly used to oppress the opposition or political dissent."
The release of all political prisoners is one requirement by Western nations for economic sanctions against Burma to be lifted.
The United States, the European Union, and others limit trade with Burma because of military abuses and suppression of democracy.
The prisoner releases came as U.S. Congressman Joe Crowley, a key supporter of sanctions, is in Burma for meetings with officials and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Her National League for Democracy party is a big supporter of sanctions to maintain pressure on authorities for reforms.
The Nobel Prize winner was released from house arrest in 2010 just days after controversial elections that brought President Thein Sein to power.
His nominally civilian government took office in March replacing decades of overt military rule.
Critics say the elections merely cemented military power in the guise of democracy.
But President Thein Sein surprised observers with a series of reforms, including holding direct talks with Aung San Suu Kyi, seeking peace with ethnic rebel groups, and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.