Myanmar's release of nearly 4,000 prisoners sparked faint hopes yesterday for political detainees including pro-democracy figures, but one observer warned it was aimed at easing international criticism over last month's power struggle.
The country's military government announced late Thursday it ordered the release of 3,937 prisoners who may have been wrongly imprisoned by a recently disbanded military intelligence unit.
State radio said the detainees were being freed from jails throughout the country, but its provision of few other details and no mention of who the prisoners were has left observers including diplomats guessing as to the junta's motives for the largest mass release in years.
A Myanmar legal expert who handles cases of members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party sounded a note of cautious optimism over the gesture.
"We are not sure if any political prisoners are included in this release, but if they are it would be a good sign," Nyan Win told reporters, adding that the amnesty was "unprecedented" in the past several years.
The government has thrown scores of NLD members into detention, including its leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her deputy Tin Oo, since May last year when their convoy was attacked by a junta-backed mob in northern Myanmar.
A Western diplomat told reporters some lower-ranking NLD members were likely to be among those freed, but stressed that it was "not possible" that Aung San Suu Kyi or Tin Oo would be among them.
"We need to wait for the dust to settle for two or three days so that we can assess the realities of who these people are," he said.
Among them, he added, could be prisoners who had already served their sentences but were still held under the country's repressive legal system which allows for detention of prisoners beyond their jail terms. An NLD spokesman said it was not known if any party members or other political prisoners were among those freed.
"We are waiting to hear from them," the member said.
One Yangon-based observer dismissed the junta's gesture as a ploy to ease widespread international condemnation of last month's dismissal of prime minister Khin Nyunt and his replacement by a hardline general.
"These are damage-control measures taken by the military hierarchy to negate some of the negative developments here," the observer said.
Khin Nyunt had headed military intelligence for two decades.
The National Intelligence Bureau (NIB), which gave officers loyal to Khin Nyunt widespread powers, was abolished late last month, and state media reported Thursday that the convicts were released in light of "irregularities" committed by the NIB.
Khin Nyunt was the figure within the State Peace and Development Council, the junta's official name, most in favour of dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. The pair launched a timid secretive dialogue four years ago, but the talks stalled after Aung San Suu Kyi's arrest last year.
His ouster and house arrest over corruption charges deepened the pessimism over an early release for the Nobel peace prize winner as the junta's top man Senior General Than Shwe, a military hardliner, strengthened his hold on the leadership.
Amnesty International in its 2004 report said more than 1,350 political prisoners remained imprisoned in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The military has ruled Myanmar since 1962. The opposition headed by Aung San Suu Kyi won elections in 1990 but was not allowed to take power.