Burma today released its most significant political prisoners in a move which western diplomats said sets the country on course for European Union sanctions to be lifted in April.
Officials said 651 prisoners were released, including all of the most prominent student, democracy and minority leaders along with military intelligence and army dissidents jailed in 2004.
A spokesman for the country’s democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi said he believed those released included all the country’s political prisoners, but it was still seeking confirmation.
“We are very happy for the country and for democracy. We don’t know the exact numbers but we are checking now. Many have been released from countryside jails. I think all 591 [political prisoners] are being released,” said her spokesman Nyan Win.
The move follows yesterday’s historic ceasefire agreement between the government and rebel leaders of the Karen minority which brought to end the world’s longest-running insurgency.
Rumours began to circulate that significant numbers of political prisoners would soon be released following the visit of Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague last week in which he told Burma’s president Thein Sein and other senior officials that sanctions could be lifted in April if it released all remaining political prisoners, allowed humanitarian access to tribal minority ‘conflict areas’, and conducts free and fair polling in 48 by-elections on April 1.
After his meeting, he said: ”All the ministers affirmed that they will release political prisoners. I urge them to do so quickly.
"The world is watching now and making up its mind now about events in this country. It's important to proceed without delay. The EU makes its decision in April, so the government here will want to bear that in mind,” he said.
Burma’s leadership, including powerful former army generals, appears to have moved quickly on his advice.
Those released included Min Ko Naing, the student leader known as the "conqueror of Kings", who has spent 19 years in prison since he was arrested in 1989.
They also include prominent Shan minoritiy leaders, including Sai Nyunt Lwin, secretary Shan Nationalities' League for Democracy (SNLD), who was released from Kalaymyo prison.
He told Reuters news agency all other leaders of his group, including its chairman Khun Tun Oo, were released from prisons throughout Burma this morning.
He was later quoted on the Democratic Voice of Burma website saying he should never have been jailed. “I feel no emotion at all to be released because I wasn’t supposed to be arrested in the first place.
"I didn’t commit any of the crimes they accused me of – there was no national treason. I have wasted seven years of my life for something I didn’t do and there’s nothing to be happy about now,” he said.
Shin Gambira, the Buddhist monk and one of the leaders of the 2007 street protests, was also among those released, prison officials said.
Officials from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and the Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP) were this morning combing through their ‘prisoner lists’ to establish how many and which prisoners had been released.
Differences between the two groups over how many political prisoners are being held in Burma appear to have been a factor in the government delaying releases.
NLD officials believe there were 591 political prisoners, while the AAPP claims there are 1600. NLD officials said the government feared making a significant amnesty announcement which could be denounced as insufficient by the ABPP.
One official told Reuters the 651 prisoners who appear to have been released include 308 ‘prisoners of conscience’ and 148 former intelligence officers, including the former prisme minister and head of military intelligence General Khin Nyunt, who was released from house arrest.
Local media however said 591 – all of those on the NLD’s list of political prisoners – had been released.
Western diplomats in Rangoon today said the amnesty amounted to a “very significant” move by the Burmese government which would bring the lifting of European Union sanctions closer.
“This is a very significant day and a big step towards meeting the concerns of Western governments and the international community. They have not defined how many are political prisoners but it would appear there are potentially 500 political prisoners. Everyone is still collating information,” one Western diplomat in Rangoon told The Daily Telegraph.
General Khin Nyunt was reported as telling crowds outside his home he was happy to be released but was concerned that some of his men remained in detention.
The Irrawaddy website quoted him voicing support for Aung San Suu Kyi. “I welcome Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s efforts. If she is in the Hluttaw [Parliament], it will be better than it is now because she is brave and outspoken,” he said.