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Myanmar frees 302 political prisoners



Myanmar confirmed on Saturday that 302 political prisoners were freed under the latest amnesty that was welcomed by the international community as a significant step forward.

On Friday, the government released them based on a list of 600 prisoners of conscience provided by "a political party", Home Minister General Ko Ko said in Naypyitaw, the administrative capital 350 kilometres north of Yangon.
Of the 600 inmates, 430 were judged to be political prisoners, but 128 of those were kept in custody because they had also committed serious crimes, Ko Ko said.
Other ministry officials confirmed that the prisoner list was provided by the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma said the NLD list was far from complete.
"As far as we know, there are still more than 700 political prisoners in Myanmar jails," spokesman Bo Kyi said.
The association said 347 political prisoners had been released under three previous amnesties by President Thein Sein since March.
Friday's amnesty was hailed by Western democracies as a major step forward for the once-pariah state.
The US government said it would send an ambassador to the Asian nation for the first time in more than 20 years. The European Union hailed "a further step toward a new relationship with Burma-Myanmar".  Prominent political activists Min Ko Naing, Htay Kywe, Zaw That Htwe, Jimmy and Ma Nilar Thein, Ko Ko Gyi and Sander Minn were among those released.
At least nine journalists were also freed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Others included former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who fell from grace in 2004; Khun Tun Oo, a Shan ethnic minority rebel leader; and Buddhist monk Gambira, a leader of the 2007 street demonstrations.
Gambira expressed relief, but said the country "still has a long way to go".  "Although they are releasing prisoners now, they still have characteristics of the dictatorship. What kind of democracy is this? They had to wait until today to release us," the monk told the Norway-based exile broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma.
Amnesty International urged the government to do more.
"This release of political prisoners is a major step forward, but the gates must be opened even wider to all remaining prisoners of conscience," said Benjamin Zawacki, a Myanmar researcher.
Thein Sein has followed a reformist track since assuming power.
He initiated a political dialogue in August with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, paving the way for her to contest the April 1 parliamentary by-election.
The president also initiated ceasefire agreements with three ethnic minority rebel groups: the Shan State Army-South, Chin National Army and Karen National Union.
The release of all political prisoners and end to hostilities with ethnic minorities are the two main conditions set by the West for normalising ties with Myanmar. The country has been under economic sanctions since the army cracked down on the 1988 demonstrations, killing an estimated 3 000 people.

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