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.
The army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades in November, a process mocked at the time as a scripted sham to seal authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.
Since then, President Thein Sein, a retired general but the first civilian head of state in half a century, has begun a number of reforms, including calls to win over restive ethnic minorities, some tolerance of criticism and more diplomacy.
The most prominent freed dissident appeared to be Zarganar, a comedian who goes by one name and was arrested in June 2008.
He was sentenced to 59 years in a remote prison after criticizing the then-ruling generals for their sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people when it devastated the Irrawaddy delta a month earlier.
Also freed was Sai Say Htan, an ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 104 years in prison in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new constitution, prison sources and relatives said.
Believed to be in his late 70s, Sai Say Htan was a leader of the Shan State Army, which fought for decades against successive military regimes that ruled following a 1962 coup.
”His health has been in very bad condition for a long time, a Yangon-based Shan politician told Reuters.
Many more remained in jail, including a group of activists who led a failed 1988 uprising.
Diplomats in Yangon said more political prisoners may well be freed over coming months after a new national human rights commission called on the president in an open letter published in state media on Tuesday to release prisoners who did not pose “a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility.”
Myanmar has faced pressure from the need to find alternatives to China in the face of popular resentment of its influence, to growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar’s isolation as the region approaches an EU-style Asian community in 2015.
Myanmar’s infrastructure is in shambles and its sanctions-hit economy has few sources of growth beyond billions of dollars of investment from China, a historic rival whose growing economic influence in the country is stirring popular resentment.
Myanmar also appears to be trying to convince the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to allow it to take its rotating presidency in 2014, two years ahead of schedule and a year before the next general election.
Hosting ASEAN would give Myanmar a degree of international recognition and help convince the World Bank and other multilateral institutions to return to the impoverished nation.
“This is part of a process that is aiming for international acceptance and removal of sanctions which will allow access to international financial institutions that will benefit the government and the elite,” said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based author and expert on Myanmar.
Nestled strategically between powerhouses India and China, Myanmar is blighted by decades of inept military rule and starved of capital despite rich natural resources, from gems and timber to oil and natural gas.
Last week, the government suspended a $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project, a victory for Suu Kyi’s supporters and a sign the country was willing to yield to popular resentment.
These moves have raised hopes the new parliament will slowly prize open the country that just over 50 years ago was one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest.
“We’re encouraged by the steps we see the government taking ... we’re going to take them at their word,” Clinton said in an interview in Washington. “But we want to see actions. And if they are going to release political prisoners, that would be a very positive sign.”
Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie