Myanmar frees about 300 dissidents, many still in jail

Wed Oct 12, 2011 6:20am EDT
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By Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar freed at least 300 political prisoners including several prominent dissidents on Wednesday, leaving an estimated 1,800 behind bars, as one of the world's most reclusive states begins to open up after half a century of iron-fisted rule.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to Reuters before a general amnesty for 6,359 prisoners including political detainees, said she was encouraged by "promising signals" of reform but that it was too early to announce steps Washington might take in response.

The United States, Europe and Australia have said freeing Myanmar's political prisoners is essential to even considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and, over years, driven it closer to China.

A senior prison official told Reuters a total of about 300 dissidents were freed on Wednesday.

"We hope many more will be released," said Nobel Peace Prize 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.

After weeks of rare overtures, including a loosening of some media controls and more dialogue with Suu Kyi, the number was less than many had expected, raising questions over how soon and how fast the former British colony is willing to open up, under pressure for change on multiple fronts, including popular resentment at China's new influence.

"It is disappointing," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher based in Bangkok. "We had reason to expect, given the rather fast and qualitative steps that have taken place over the past several months, that today's release would be more substantial numerically."

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has released dissidents only to detain them again, but with more freed than in the past, there was reason to believe this time would be different.   Continued...