YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's newly elected civilian government was poised Wednesday to release more than 6,300 prisoners in an amnesty that could help patch up the country's human rights record and normalize relations with Western nations.
It was widely expected that many of the country's estimated 2,000 political prisoners would be among those freed. The amnesty announcement broadcast Tuesday did not supply names, but relatives said those on this list included one of the most prominent detainees — comedian and activist Zarganar, who is serving a 35-year sentence in Myitkyina prison in northernmost Kachin State.
Zarganar was detained in 2008 after giving interviews to foreign media criticizing the nation's 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.
Zarganar's sister-in-law, Ma Nyein, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that prison officials had confirmed that Zarganar was on a list of those to be freed. "I am very happy," she said.
Freedom for political detainees has been hotly anticipated as part of liberalizing measures since Myanmar's long-ruling military government handed power in March to a military-backed civilian administration.
"We welcome the amnesty announcement. This is very good news and we hope that many political prisoners will be among those freed," said Nyan Win, a spokesman for democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
President Thein Sein, a former army officer who took office in March, has begun a dialogue with the democracy movement and promised other reforms that could start to reverse the harsh policies of decades of military rule.
The announcement said 6,359 inmates would be released beginning Wednesday under a humanitarian amnesty signed by Thein Sein for inmates who are old, disabled, unwell or who had shown good "moral behavior."
Relatives of political detainees were excited by the announcement, but wary, given that they could not be sure who would be among those released. Thein Sein instituted an earlier amnesty soon after taking office, but it included just a few dozen political detainees
Most prominent political prisoners, including many affiliated with ethnic minorities, are held in facilities far from the country's main city of Yangon, in a policy apparently aimed at limiting their ability to communicate through visiting family members and lawyers.
The release of political detainees has been a key concern of the United States, which has been seeking to re-engage with Myanmar after isolating its former military government with political and economic sanctions over its poor record on human rights and democracy.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the U.S. wanted to see the release of all political prisoners, and it was looking to see who was released in the upcoming amnesty.
"We have made clear our desire to see continuing progress on issues such as prisoner releases" and other matters, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell said Monday during a lecture in the Thai capital, Bangkok.
Myanmar officials who have spoken privately of the release do not expect all of the country's 2,000 political detainees to be freed. But a failure to release a substantial number could be considered an inadequate gesture by Washington.
"There are clearly changes afoot, but we are at the early stages of that process and we are looking to see whether they will be sustained," said Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia.
The United States believes Myanmar's elections were flawed but has been encouraged by its liberalizing trend since the civilian administration took power, Campbell said.
"I think it would be fair to say that we will match their steps with comparable steps," he said.
The U.S. could ease restrictions on financial transactions and travel by top Myanmar officials, and also unblock aid by some multilateral agencies as well as resume its own assistance.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.