Burma Frees At Least 183 Dissidents, Rights Groups Say Not Enough

Posted October 12th, 2011 at 11:45 am (UTC-5)
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Burma's main opposition group says the government has released at least 183 jailed dissidents in its latest gesture of political reform, but rights groups criticized the move as insufficient.

The National League for Democracy said some of the dissidents freed Wednesday are party members, but the exact number was unclear because of difficulties in contacting them. Burma's government said it was releasing more than 6,000 inmates from prisons around the country starting Wednesday on humanitarian grounds.

The most prominent freed dissident is popular Burmese comedian Zarganar , who angered the government by accusing it of a sluggish response to a 2008 cyclone that left about 140,000 people dead or missing. He was sentenced in 2008 to 59 years in prison, later reduced to 35 years.

Burmese authorities also freed an ethnic minority rebel leader of the Shan State Army North, Say Htan. He had been sentenced to more than 100 years in prison in 2005.

International human rights groups expressed disappointment that most of Burma's more than 2,000 political prisoners remained behind bars, including activists who led a failed 1988 uprising against the country's then-military rulers.

The Burmese military handed power in March to an elected civilian government dominated by retired army officials. In recent months, Burmese President Thein Sein has made several overtures toward the opposition, loosening some controls on the media and starting a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.

But, the Burmese government has continued to face economic and political sanctions from the United States and European Union, which insist on the release of all Burmese political prisoners.

The European Union welcomed Wednesday's releases but said it will judge the move based on how many dissidents eventually are freed.

In Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi said she welcomes the release of every individual and hopes more prisoners of conscience will be let go.

After his release from prison, Zarganar told VOA's Burmese service that during his detention, he felt as if he had been captured by Somali pirates. He also expressed sadness that fellow dissidents remain in jail and called on Burmese politicians to back up their talk of reform with real actions.