Editor’s Note: This story is being updated throughout the day.
(Mizzima) – Hopes are high that many – if not all – of Burma’s political prisoners will be among the 651 prisoners released on Friday, as prison officials confirm prominent political prisoners have been freed already or are included in the amnesty.
So far, the release confirms that many of the most prominent political prisoners have been released, marking a historic moment in terms of national reconciliation. However, the number of political prisoners released is still uncertain, as remote prisons throughout the country release prisoners without providing official lists or confirmation.
The release began Friday morning as family and friends eagerly gathered in front of prison gates. Details of the release are coming in, but because of Burma’s lack of transparency, the information is piecemeal.
One of the most high-profile political prisoners, Min Ko Naing, has been freed, Mizzima has confirmed. An 88-Generation Student leader of the pro-democracy uprising in 1988 in which thousands of protesters were killed, he was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
Cheers and applause burst out upon his release from Thayet Prison, 545 kilometers north of Rangoon, where supporters gathered to see the quiet-spoken activist.
An activist Buddhist monk Ashin Gambira, a leader in the 2007 street demonstrations, was among 11 political prisoners released from Myaungmya Prison on Friday morning. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
An official from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State said two other prominent activists, Jimmy and Zaw Thet Htwe, would be freed there.
A family member of prominent prisoner Htay Kywe, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, was quoted by Reuters as saying: "I've got confirmation that Ko Htay Kywe and almost all members of the 88-group and other prominent figures like Ashin Gambira and Khun Tun Oo will be released."
Former intelligence chief Khin Nyunt was released on Friday morning. It was the first time for him to meet his family since he was arrested and jailed seven years ago, sources said. Upon his release, he said he supported Aung San Su Kyi.
"The democratic process is on the right track," the 73-year-old Khin Nyunt told reporters, adding he did not plan to return to politics. Khin Nyunt, who was ousted by former junta leader Than Shwe, was Prime Minister from August 2003 until October 2004. Also released were a group of his former intelligence officiers as well as two of his sons, according to the China.org website. Khin Nyunt was removed from his post in October 2004 on charges of bribery and corruption.
Also freed was the chairman of the Shan National League for Democracy Khun Tun Oo. In 2005, Khun Htun Oo and other SNLD leaders were arrested on charges of treason and "inciting disaffection toward the government.” Khun Htun Oo was sentenced to 93 years imprisonment.
Prominent blogger Nay Phone Latt, who was serving a 20-year sentence, was released from Pa-an prison, his father told Mizzima. He was convicted under the Electronics Act for possession of banned videos and other offenses.
Khin Moe Moe, a member of Shan National League for Democracy (NLD), told Mizzima that 33 political prisoners including 88-generation student leaders Jimmy, Mya Aye, Kyaw Ko Ko, Yar Hu and Maung Kan were released from Taunggyi Prison in Shan State. Aung Kyaw Kyaw, the brother of Ashin Gambira, was included among the 33 political prisoners.
The Shan NLD will help newly released political prisoners, according to Khin Moe Moe.
“For those whose families cannot come [to Taunggyi], our Shan NLD is arranging accommodations,” he said.
Other reported releases of political prisoners included 88-generation students Mi Mi and That Zaw, released from Shwebo Prison; DVB reporter Hla Hla Win and 88- generation student Ant Bwe Kyaw from Katha Prison.
Eight political prisoners have been released from Sittwe Prison in Arakan State, sources told Mizzima. They are Ashin Sanda Thiri (aka) U Zin Pa Yit, Dr. Thet Lwin, Than Tin (aka) Ko Gyi Than, Pyace Phyo Hlaing, Aung Aung Kyaw, Zeya Oo, Kyaw Zin Win and Kyaw Lin Oo.
All Burma Federation of Student Unions leader Hanny Oo has been released from Lashio Prison, sources said. Local monastery officials said other prisoners released included Ngwe Soe Lin, Min Han, Myint Naing, Zarni Aung, Nyan Lin Htut and Min Zay Yar.
Two prominent Chin political activists Pu Kam Lam Khup (aka Kyaw Soe) and Anthony Kap Khan Khual, who were arrested in late 2007 for their roles in the famous “Saffron Revolution,” were released, according to the Chinland Guardian website. They were sentenced to 33 years and eight years, respectively.
Min Zeya, one of the 88-generation student leaders, was released from Lashio Prison, according to Cho Cho Win, his wife.
Six prisoners were reported released from Meiktila Prison: three were political prisoners and three were military intelligence personnel connected to former General Khin Nyunt.
The three political prisoners were NLD members Tun Tun Naing and Tun Tun Oo, both from Insein Township, who were arrested in connection with the 2007 demonstrations; and Myat Ko of Aunglan Township.
Six political prisoners were reported released from Yamethin Prison: Ashin Way Polla (aka Win Tin); Ashin Thawbita (aka Than Htike Soe); Ashin Thuwunna (aka Han Soe); Ashin Gawthita (aka Han Myint); Kaung Kaung (aka Zaw Win Myint); and Pho Thaung (aka Hla Myint).
An NLD volunteer and former military officer Nay Myo Zin, who worked as a volunteer for an NLD blood donor group, was released from Insein Prison on Friday. He was arrested in April 2011 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Journalists working for the Burmese exile radio and TV station Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) have confirmed that all DVB journalists, including Hla Hla Win, Ngwe Soe Lin, Win Maw, Sithu Zeya and his father U Zeya, two freelance journalists (Thant Zin Aung and Zaw Thet Htwe) and the blogger Nay Phone Latt are among those who have been released, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Burma state radio and television said Thursday evening the amnesty was ordered so that those released can participate in the task of nation-building, a description that could be construed to refer to political prisoners.
If the release includes all of the political prisoners, a major condition for the removal of sanctions would be achieved, because it is a core demand of Western governments to improve relations with Burma.
The deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a US-based campaign group, urged the Myanmar government to let the freed prisoners return to political activism.
“The government should ensure that there are no obstacles to these activists participating in public life and upcoming elections,” she said.
The amnesty comes less than two weeks after the government freed 6,656 convicts under an amnesty and reduced the sentences of 38,964 others through a clemency order.
However, only 34 political detainees were among those freed, causing general disappointment during a time of rising expectations due to the many democratic reforms the new military-backed government, which took office last year, has implemented.
"I think the government is releasing the prisoners apparently because the recent clemency order was strongly criticized by us and the international community," Ohn Kyaing, a spokesman for the opposition National League of Democracy party, told The Associated Press.