Myanmar opposition frustrated by prisoner amnesty

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Family members of prisoners wait for their release

Family members of prisoners wait for their release outside the Insein central prison in Yangon on October 12. Myanmar faced calls on Thursday to free its remaining political prisoners as the opposition expressed disappointment with a much-anticipated amnesty that left most key dissidents behind bars

Myanmar faced growing calls Thursday to free its remaining political prisoners as the opposition expressed disappointment with a much-anticipated amnesty that left most key dissidents behind bars.

The regime pardoned about 200 political prisoners, according to pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party, but kept most of its roughly 2,000 political detainees locked up.

"There are still many prisoners who we expected to be released and who the people expected to be released. We feel frustrated," NLD spokesman Nyan Win told AFP.

Some observers, however, said the amnesty could be one of several by a regime that appears eager to end its international isolation but is wary of potential unrest.

The fate of political prisoners in Myanmar is a key concern of western governments that have imposed sanctions on the isolated nation.

The United States and United Nations separately gave cautious welcomes to Wednesday's prison releases, but called for all political detainees in Myanmar to be released.

"We see it as an important step that responds to the aspirations of the Burmese people," US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"We have not yet seen a complete list. We do believe that there is still a large number of political prisoners in prison, and we call for all of them to be released."

The Obama administration -- which has pursued a dual-track policy of engaging with Myanmar while retaining sanctions against it -- has noted tentative signs of political change in Myanmar, also called Burma.

Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director at the think-tank International Crisis Group, said of the amnesty: "It is important to see this as part of an ongoing effort of reforms across the country.

"This will be part of a series of releases. The president seems very committed to the ambitious reform agenda he announced in March, and he is moving at a pace that is surprising for many."

Myanmar expert Aung Naing Oo, of the Vahu Development Institute, a Thai-based think-tank, said the country's rulers could be held back by "security concerns" about releasing high-profile dissidents.

The international community should "encourage the government to be more confident," he added.

The famous satirist Zarganar was among those released. The regime was also believed to have freed General Hso Ten, a prominent ethnic Shan leader sentenced to 106 years for charges including high treason.

But many leading dissidents, including key figures involved in a failed 1988 student-led uprising, as well as journalists, monks and lawyers, remained locked up.

Phyo Min Thein, an activist and the brother-in-law of Htay Kywe, who led the 88 Generation Students Group and is currently serving a 65-year sentence, said the government should not fear dissidents who have campaigned for democracy.

"We will continue our demands to release them. We felt very sorry yesterday when we heard that he was not among the release list. We had high expectations of the amnesty," he said.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said the pardon "lacks sincerity" and warned the regime's failure to recognise critics as political prisoners was a barrier to reconciliation.

The amnesty came amid heightened hopes of reform following a series of moves by President Thein Sein, a former general, including talks with Suu Kyi, who spent most of the past two decades locked up by the junta.

In a rare concession to public opinion, Myanmar last month suspended construction of a controversial mega-dam, risking the anger of traditional ally China, which is backing the project.

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, an activist with the Burma Campaign UK and daughter of political prisoner Ko Mya Aye, said she was "extremely disappointed" and that the move was "not enough to justify the lifting of any sanctions".

"Today is a day of joy for the families of those who have been released, but for many more it is a day of sadness and disappointment, as their father, mother, husband, brother or sister remain in jail. This is a reality check, change hasn’t come to Burma yet."