October 12th, 2011
11:24 AM ET

Change in Myanmar? Prisoner amnesty begins

Myanmar released dozens of political prisoners Wednesday, among them a well-known comedian and an ethnic Shan general, the latest in a series of moves that could help the isolated nation normalize relations with the West.

The mass amnesty, which authorities say will eventually free 6,300 prisoners, has helped fuel hope for change in one of the most repressive states in the world.

But is the amnesty an authentic step toward liberalization - or another gesture by the new government to appease critics?

Speaking in Thailand this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said undeniably, "dramatic developments" were under way in Myanmar that could prompt Washington to improve ties. The United States imposes an embargo on arms and investment in Myanmar, once known as Burma before a military junta took over.

But human rights activists warned against showering Myanmar's leadership with too many kudos too fast.

Only about 150 of Myanmar's more than 2,000 political detainees were released in the amnesty, said Thein Oo, a senior member of the National League for Democracy, the party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Many prominent dissidents remain behind bars.

"If we talk about the change going on in Burma, what I can say is I still don't believe that Burma is really on the right track," said Zarganar, the comedian who was released Wednesday. "I'm saying that based on my experience. What I mean is that only a few political prisoners are included in today's release."

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