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Myanmar set to free thousands of "prisoners of conscience"

People from Myanmar living in Malaysia raise banners and placards during a protest near the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on October 11, 2011.

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images/Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Reclusive Myanmar is expected to release a number of political detainees on Wednesday under an amnesty for thousands of prisoners announced after the national human rights commission urged the president to free "prisoners of conscience."

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 on the pariah Southeast Asian state.

State television said 6,359 prisoners who are "elderly, sick, disabled or have served their punishment with good conduct and character" would be freed on Wednesday, but did not say if political detainees would be among them.

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General prisoner amnesties are fairly common in Myanmar. A May amnesty for 14,000 inmates included just 47 political prisoners, which human rights activists called a token gesture.

But there may be more reason for optimism this time.

One lawmaker, 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.

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

"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 President Thein Sein, a former general but who took over this year as the first civilian head of state in half a century.

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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There have been other significant 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 have included calls for peace with ethnic minority guerrilla groups, 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.

"It raises the question of whether the government is indeed moving towards some serious relaxation of its control of the population and of the way politics works in Myanmar," said Milton Osbourne, Southeast Asia analyst at Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy.

The government has faced pressure for change on multiple fronts - from the wildly popular Suu Kyi to the need to find alternatives to China in the face of popular resentment of its influence, to growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar's isolation as the region approaches an EU-style Asian community in 2015.

Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar's desire to open up, include a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses.

The country's infrastructure is in shambles and its economy has few sources of growth beyond investment from China and Thailand, and about 30 percent of the population living in poverty, according to UN data.

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Some analysts say Myanmar also wants to show the United States that it is independent of China.

Last week, the government suspended a $3.6-billion, Chinese-led dam project, a victory for supporters of Suu Kyi and a sign 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.

Nestled strategically between economic powerhouses India and China, Myanmar has been one of the world's most difficult destinations for investors, restricted by sanctions, blighted by 49 years of oppressive military rule and starved of capital despite rich natural resources, from gems to timber to oil.

In November 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama offered Myanmar the prospect of better ties if it pursued democratic reform and freed political prisoners, including opposition leader Suu Kyi.

But Washington's demands go beyond prisoners, making it unclear whether it would lift sanctions if the prisoners are released.

The United States has also demanded more transparency in Myanmar's relationship with North Korea and an end to human-rights abuses involving ethnic minorities in remote regions bordering Thailand and China.

A European diplomat in Bangkok said many European countries had privately urged the European Union to ease sanctions and that the EU could face strong internal pressure to do so if prisoners were released and Suu Kyi changed her stance.

"All it would take is for Suu Kyi to urge sanctions to come down," said the diplomat, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

In Tokyo, a foreign ministry official said Japan had resumed some aid to Myanmar in June after the release of Suu Kyi and other signs of reform.

"We may continue with this stance if there are more releases of political prisoners," the official said. "Work still needs to be done in terms of democracy but we think they are moving in the right direction."

Myanmar also appears to be trying to convince the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to allow it to take its rotating presidency in 2014, two years ahead of schedule and a year before the next general election.

Hosting ASEAN would give Myanmar a degree of international recognition and help convince the World Bank and other multilateral institutions to return to the impoverished nation.

It is unclear whether all political prisoners would be released at once, or indeed how many would be freed.

Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said he had not heard whether political detainees would be freed. Families of prisoners also had not been told.

"We are still trying to find out," said Ma Nyein, sister-in-law of Zar Ga Nar, a jailed comedian and government critic.

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