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Burmese Prison Release Appears to Have Stopped

Burma's military government appears to have stopped releasing thousands of prisoners it pledged to free less than a week ago. Relatives of hundreds of political prisoners say there have been no new releases since Saturday.

Only 28 political prisoners had been freed by Wednesday, after Burma's government promised to release nearly 4,000 prisoners. The most prominent political prisoner released was Min Ko Naing, leader of the 1988 student democracy protests that the government violently crushed.

Only about 200 prisoners in total have been freed, most of them ordinary criminals.

All had been jailed by a military intelligence unit headed by Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was accused of corruption last month and removed from office. He was considered a moderate who made cautious steps toward reconciling with the pro-democracy opposition. His replacement, Soe-win, is seen as a hard-line member of the military government.

Amnesty International estimates up to 1,300 political prisoners are held in Burma's jails.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Irawaddy magazine, a Burmese paper based in Thailand, thinks the government stopped freeing prisoners because newly released democracy leader Min Ko Naing has received so much attention.

"Since he has been released, hundreds of people have been coming to see him, even today, it's non-stop, and government wouldn't expect that," he said. "I think they're trying to control the release of other prisoners because they're afraid of the result."

The halt in releases has dashed the hopes of many that democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi would soon be freed from house arrest.

The Nobel laureate has spent nearly half of the past 14 years detained after she and her party, the National League for Democracy, won 1990 elections by a landslide. They were never allowed to take power.

Burma is expected to face criticism at next week's meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, over its lack of progress on democratic reform.

Burma, which joined ASEAN in 1997, is to assume its rotating presidency in 2006.

Aung Zaw says the military timed the prisoner release to deflect some of the criticism.

"The government is always clever in maneuvering and deceiving the international community by releasing a handful of political prisoners whenever they needed to," said Aung Zaw. "Also the release of Min Ko Naing they might believe they will receive credit and kudos from ASEAN members."

The government announced Wednesday it will resume the national convention to draft a constitution in February, a month later than earlier planned.

Many Western government have placed sanctions against Burma over its failure to release Aung San Suu Kyi and its poor human rights record.