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In surprise amnesty, Myanmar releases high-profile political prisoners

Myanmar freed hundreds of political prisoners Friday in an amnesty that could pressure the West to lift sanctions as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up.

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Myanmar's former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was once the powerful chief of military intelligence (MI), speaks after his release from house arrest in Yangon on Friday. Hundreds of prisoners began to walk free from jails around Myanmar on Friday in an amnesty, as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up after half a century of authoritarian rule.

James YeAungThu/Reuters

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Myanmar's government today freed hundreds of political prisoners in a landmark release that could see Western sanctions on the former military dictatorship relaxed.

The surprise amnesty, the second significant prisoner release since the current military-backed government was formed and new reforms implemented, comes amid growing rivalry between the US and China in Asia. Myanmar (Burma) has long been an economically and politically tied to China, but some see its rulers as chafing under Beijing's influence, while the US is trying to recover lost ground in the region.

Singaporean academic Simon Tay says that Myanmar's reforms, though promising, could be more about forming better relations with the West, which has long called on Myanmar's rulers to bring about change, than about real democratic progress.

The timing and magnitude of today's mass release came as a surprise to many analysts, including Aung Naing Oo, a former student protester from Myanmar who is now deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute in Thailand. “The military moves slowly, cautiously,” he says explaining why the release came after some recent smaller amnesties that many found disappointing.

Among those freed today were student leaders of a 1988 uprising against military rule, monks who fronted the 2007 Saffron protests, journalists, and bloggers, as well as a former military junta Prime Minister Khin Nyunt and some former intelligence officials and military insiders who were jailed in a 2004 purge orchestrated by then-dictator Than Shwe.

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