BANGKOK -- The new government in Myanmar (Burma) began releasing thousands of prisoners on Oct. 12 in an amnesty designed to impress Western nations that it is serious about protecting human rights.
The amnesty, announced the previous day, is expected to lead to the lifting of economic sanctions that were imposed to protest the repressive rule by the former military government.
There were high hopes that many of the country's estimated 2,000 political prisoners would be released.
The government's amnesty announcement did not mention names and it remains unclear what categories of prisoners will be freed.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, along with Japan, the United States and the European Union, has made strident calls for the release of political prisoners.
Many of them were key figures in the pro-democracy movement who led anti-government protests in 1988 and 2007.
The amnesty, which includes the release of about 70 political prisoners, could be taken as a sign that the government is serious about promoting democratization, prompting Western governments to lift their economic sanctions.
Myanmar's state-run media announced Oct. 11 that elderly prisoners and those with illnesses or who had served their sentences with good behavior would be covered by the amnesty granted by President Thein Sein.
Myanmar's human rights commission submitted a letter calling for the release of those prisoners who posed no threat to the stability of the nation.
The amnesty is also aimed at appeasing Myanmar's neighbors as the government is seeking to serve as the rotating head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014.
If the prisoner release program includes leaders of ethnic minority groups that took up arms against the former military junta, it would be seen as an attempt by the government to promote national reconciliation.
Thein Sein, who became president in March, has moved to sever his ties to the old military junta, even though he was No. 4 in the party hierarchy in those days.
When parliamentary elections were finally held last year, one-fourth of the seats were set aside for the military and about 80 percent of the remaining seats were taken by members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which was established by the military.
However, since becoming president, Thein Sein has met with Aung San Suu Kyi in an attempt to keep a channel of communication open. Restrictions on media coverage were also relaxed.
In addition, the government decided to suspend construction of a dam that had been criticized because of its impact on local residents and the environment.
The United States has welcomed these recent developments in Myanmar.
Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said Myanmar has demonstrated obvious signs of change.
The lifting of sanctions, such as a ban on direct investment in Myanmar, will likely face strong opposition in the U.S. Congress. Even so, Washington is expected to move to improve relations between the two nations.
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