Myanmar to release 6,359 prisoners under amnesty order

Reuters , Tuesday 11 Oct 2011

State media publishes open letter calling for release of 'prisoners of conscience'; lawmaker says release could come 'in a few days'

Myanmar plans to release 6,359 prisoners on Wednesday under an amnesty order, China's official news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday, citing Myanmar's state television and radio.

A new official human rights body in Myanmar urged the president on Tuesday to release "prisoners of conscience" in an open letter in state media, which some took to be a sign that the reclusive state was preparing to free political prisoners within days.

The United States, Europe and Australia have made the release of an estimated 2,100 political prisoners a key condition before they would consider lifting sanctions imposed in response to human rights abuses, including a bloody army crackdown on a 1988 student uprising.

One lawmaker in Myanmar's parliament, who attended a meeting on Friday in the capital, Naypyitaw, told Reuters the release of political prisoners could come "in a few days". He said that was the message given by Shwe Mann, the Lower House speaker.

Prisoners who did not pose "a threat to the stability of state and public tranquillity" should be released, Win Mra, chairman of Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, wrote in the open letter published on Tuesday.

"The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission humbly requests the president, as a reflection of his magnanimity, to grant amnesty to those prisoners and release them from the prison," the letter ended.

The commission was formed last month by the president.

The statement is one of several recent signs of change since the army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after elections in November, a process ridiculed at the time as a sham to cement authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.

Recent overtures by the government hint at deeper changes at work -- from calls for peace with ethnic minority guerrilla groups to some tolerance of criticism and more communication with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released last year from 15 years of house arrest.

Last week, the government suspended a controversial $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project, a victory for supporters of Suu Kyi and sign that the country was willing to yield to popular resentment over China's growing influence.

These moves have stoked hopes the new parliament will slowly prise open the country of 50 million people that just over 50 years ago was one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest as the world's biggest rice exporter and a major energy producer.

The open letter marks a significant shift in the former British colony, also known as Burma, where authorities have long refused to recognise the existence of political prisoners, usually dismissing such detainees as common criminals.

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