Myanmar frees some dissidents, keeps many locked up

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YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar freed an outspoken critic and a major ethnic rebel as it began releasing 6,300 convicts Wednesday in its latest liberalizing move, but it kept several political detainees behind bars, dampening hopes for a broader amnesty.

It was not clear how many of the country’s estimated 2,000 political detainees were included in the amnesty — one estimate said only 155 of them were freed. But the released included ailing Shan Army commander Hso Hten and comedian Zarganar, who was imprisoned after criticizing the government response to Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“I will be happy and I will thank the government only when all of my friends are freed,” Mr. Zarganar told the Associated Press after his release in northernmost Kachin state. He joked when asked about his health, saying sarcastically: “I am the healthiest person in the country. I am the strongest.”

Relatives of convicts held emotional reunions with loved ones outside prisons around the country a day after the country’s new civilian president declared an amnesty for 6,359 inmates — many of them ordinary criminals — on humanitarian grounds, but without disclosing any names.

Western governments, the United Nations and Myanmar‘s opposition eagerly have awaited a broad political amnesty as a gesture of liberalization by the elected government after decades of harsh military rule. A failure to follow through on those hopes could hamper the country’s efforts to burnish its human rights record and win a lifting of Western economic and political sanctions.

Female prisoners leave Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, after they were released in an amnesty by Myanmar President Thein Sein. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

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Female prisoners leave Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, on Wednesday, Oct. 12, ... more >

“The freedom of each individual is invaluable, but I wish that all political prisoners would be released,” said  Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar‘s most prominent pro-democracy campaigner and a Nobel peace laureate.

Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy confirmed the release of 155 political detainees, including members of the party, spokesman Nyan Win said. But other dissidents could have been freed without having contacted anyone yet.

President Thein Sein, a retired senior army officer who took office in March, has launched a series of economic reforms and eased limits on freedom of speech by relaxing censorship and unblocking banned websites.

He also has started a dialogue with Mrs. Suu Kyi, made calls for peace with ethnic minority rebel groups and suspended a controversial China-backed hydropower dam project after a public outcry.

“The pace of change is much faster than I would have expected,” said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at the University of Canberra. “Thein Sein must be feeling pretty secure.”

But she added that he knows the release of political prisoners must be comprehensive. “Otherwise, there will be no end to sanctions,” she said.

The human rights group Amnesty International called Wednesday’s releases a “minimum first step” and said the authorities “must immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience.”

Among those released were Hso Hten, the Shan Army commander, but another prominent Shan leader, Hkun Htun Oo, was not freed, according to a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authoritized to speak to reporters.

Hso Hten was serving a 106-year prison sentence for high treason following his arrest in 2005.

The activist Zarganar was serving a 35-year sentence in Myitkyina Prison. He was detained after giving interviews to foreign media criticizing the former military rulers for being slow to respond to Cyclone Nargis, which left nearly 140,000 people dead or missing. He was convicted of causing public alarm and illegally giving information to the press.

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