YANGON: Myanmar pardoned a number of prominent dissidents, journalists and a former premier Friday under a major prisoner amnesty, intensifying a surprising series of reforms by the army-backed regime.
The release included members of the “88 Generation Students” group, which is synonymous with the democratic struggle in the country formerly known as Burma and was at the forefront of a failed 1988 uprising in which thousands died.
The amnesty, which looked set to be the most significant yet under the nominally civilian government which took office last year, was hailed by democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party as a “positive sign”.
Former student activist Min Ko Naing, who has spent most of the years since the 1988 protests in prison, was among those pardoned, his family said.
Fellow activist Htay Kywe was also believed to be included, along with leading Shan ethnic minority leader Khun Htun Oo, who was jailed for 93 years.
President Thein Sein's latest amnesty, which includes about 650 inmates, “aimed for national reconciliation and inclusiveness in the political process”, a government official told AFP.
Former prime minister and military intelligence boss Khin Nyunt, who was placed under house arrest after being ousted in a 2004 power struggle, was another on the list.
He appeared outside his home in Yangon dressed in a T-shirt Friday, telling reporters that he welcomed recent dialogue between Suu Kyi and the government.
“It's also a good sign that the international community is coming here. I think the country will develop in the future. I won't be involved in politics anymore,” he said.
The Democratic Voice of Burma, a media group in exile that has long been a thorn in the side of the regime, said several of its journalists had also been freed.
The United States and the European Union, encouraged by steps towards reform by the government that came to power last year, have demanded the release of political prisoners before they will consider lifting sanctions on Myanmar.
The freedom of dissidents “is a requirement for normalisation of the relationship with the West”, said Myanmar political analyst Aung Naing Oo of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thai-based think-tank.
“I said again and again (the reform process) would be excruciatingly slow, but some of the changes are excruciatingly fast,” he added.
About 200 political detainees had already been freed in October, but activists estimated afterwards that there were still between 500 and more than 1,500 political prisoners in Myanmar's dilapidated jails.
Myanmar's government, which in March last year replaced a long-ruling military junta, has raised hopes in recent months by reaching out to Suu Kyi's opposition party, and inviting high-profile visits from top Western officials.
It froze work on an unpopular dam supported by powerful neighbour China, and on Thursday signed a ceasefire with a major armed ethnic Karen group involved in one of the world's longest-running civil conflicts.
The country recently announced plans to hold by-elections on April 1 and Suu Kyi — who was released from years of house arrest in November 2010 — plans to stand for a seat in parliament in a constituency near the main city Yangon.
The 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner said Wednesday that her country was “on the verge of a breakthrough to democracy”, in a taped message to an awards dinner in New York.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Myanmar to ensure that the released activists could participate freely in the upcoming polls.
“Years of international calls to release long-detained political prisoners seem to have pushed the government to finally do the right thing,” said the group's deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson.
“The next step for Burma's government is to allow international monitors to verify the whereabouts and conditions of remaining political prisoners.”