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In surprise amnesty, Myanmar releases high-profile political prisoners

Myanmar freed hundreds of political prisoners Friday in an amnesty that could pressure the West to lift sanctions as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up.

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He added that he wants to improve Myanmar's reforming political system. He would not say whether he would seek to run in upcoming by-elections set for April 1.  Ko Mya Aye, another dissident freed today, said by telephone from Myanmar that he plans to campaign for Aung San Suu Kyi when the opposition leader competes in the elections. "I absolutely trust her," he said.

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While the newly released prisoners look ahead, it remains unclear whether today's release covers all Myanmar's political prisoners. At time of writing, National League for Democracy spokesman Ohn Kyaing said by telephone from Yangon that his party was “active all across the country trying to verify the numbers of those released.”

“We have so far counted 232 political prisoners,” he said, speaking at 6:30 p.m. Yangon time. The count is expected to increase, as information comes in from the country lacking in modern telecommunications and with prison scattered in remote areas. Yangon-based newspaper Eleven News quoting Myanmar officials who said that 651 prisoners in total were released, including what they termed 591 “prisoners of conscience.” The remainder is believed to include Khin Nyunt's former spies. 

The 591 figure is the same number that NLD had said was the number of detained dissidents, suggesting that the opposition party had some influence on government moves. Ohn Kyaing said the party, headed by Myanmar's most prominent former political prisoner, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, was “very happy at the news of the release.”

Observers view the relationship between Myanmar's President Thein Sein, and Ms. Suu Kyi as having blossomed since a watershed face-to-face meeting between the pair since last July. Suu Kyi now makes regular press appearances to show support for Thein Sein's reforms.

New freedom, new candor?

Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongudhirak said that Myanmar's newfound freedoms allowed him share some revealing anecdotes he picked up from talking to officials inside the country at a forum on Myanmar politics today: "Thein Sein's wife is a big admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.

But the apparent importance of such personalized politics may suggest that Myanmar's ongoing transition needs to be anchored in stronger laws and institutions.

Soe Aung, an exiled dissident based in Thailand, told the Monitor “there must be a legal and institutional reforms to ensure that that our friends and colleagues are not rearrested and put back in jails again.”

IN PICTURES Aung San Suu Kyi

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