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Burma Releasing Political Prisoners Tuesday

Freed dissidents began emerging from Burmese jails Tuesday, the last day for the government to fulfill a promise to release all political prisoners by year's end.

At least 12 political prisoners have been released so far. More are set to walk free in the coming days as part of what officials are calling a wide-ranging amnesty.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says among those freed are Aung Min Naing and Yan Naing Tun, activists jailed for leading an unauthorized protest.

AAPP's Bo Kyi, who serves on a government political prisoner panel, tells VOA he expects the remaining prisoners to be let go during the first week of January.

This includes an estimated 40 jailed dissidents. It would also mean charges are dropped against about 200 others facing trial for political reasons in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut said Tuesday the move means Thein Sein has officially kept his promise to release all political prisoners by the end of the year.

But some are skeptical.

Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK tells VOA there are possibly hundreds of Burmese who will remain behind bars because of their political activities, ethnicity or religion.

"The problem is, what they are defining as a political prisoner is quite limited and seems predominantly to relate to the main Burman ethnic groups, people who have had political activities in central Burma in terms of protests or (other) political activities. It doesn't include a lot of the activities of certain ethnic groups or the Rohingya Muslim minority, hundreds of whom have been jailed in the last year and a half."

In addition, it appears the amnesty will not affect those political prisoners convicted of other crimes, such as desertion or murder.

Rights groups and governments have long pressured Burma to free all its political prisoners, which were a hallmark of the country's previous military rule.

Three years ago, the military gave way to an elected, nominally civilian government. This brought on a wave of political and economic reforms, during which the government has released more than 1,300 prisoners.

But rights groups say the government's efforts will be incomplete if it does not amend or remove oppressive laws allowing the government to continue detaining its critics. They also point out that many of those freed have later been re-arrested.

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