YANGON (Reuters) ? Political prisoners began to walk free from jails around Myanmar on Friday in an amnesty that officials said could cover a total 651 inmates, as one of the world's most reclusive states opens up after half a century of authoritarian rule.
The United States and Europe have said freeing political prisoners is crucial to even considering lifting the economic sanctions that have isolated the former British colony, also known as Burma, and pushed it closer to China.
There was no official word on how many political prisoners would be included in the total, but among them was Sai Nyunt Lwin, 60, a prominent ethnic minority Shan politician and secretary of the former Shan Nationalities' League for Democracy (SNLD), who was released from Kalaymyo prison.
Contacted by telephone, he told Reuters: "I have confirmed all remaining leaders of the SNLD, including Chairman Khun Tun Oo, were released from different prisons across the country today."
"I was sentenced to 85 years but released today after seven years. I am in good health. I'm flying to Yangon this afternoon," he added.
Family members and prison officials said many more political activists, including members of the "88 Generation Students Group," young dissidents who led a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 when thousands of protesters were killed, would be released in the second major prison amnesty in four months.
Among them were Min Ko Naing, a top leader of the group, and Shin Gambira, a well-known Buddhist monk who led 2007 street protests, prison officials said.
Former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, who was once the powerful chief of military intelligence (MI), was being freed from house arrest, a senior prison official said.
"Out of 651 released from different prisons today, 308 are what you call 'prisoners of conscience' like Min Ko Naing and Shin Gambira and 148 are former military intelligence personnel, including former MI chief and Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt," he said.
Appointed prime minister in 2003, Khin Nyunt began implementing a then much-derided seven-point "roadmap to democracy" but was purged the following year in circumstances that were never fully explained. He has been under house arrest since then.
Secluded Myanmar has initiated radical reforms since a civilian government was allowed to take power in March after almost half a century of rule by the military.
The authorities freed about 230 political detainees in a general amnesty on October 12.
Media curbs have been eased and the government has initiated a dialogue with Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has led the fight for democracy and was herself released from years of house arrest in late 2010.
Last month Hillary Clinton, the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, said Washington stood ready to support reforms and possibly lift sanctions.
The next major step in the reform process will be April by-elections in which Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) will take part.
Min Ko Naing would be freed from Thayet Prison, a prison official and a member of his family told Reuters. He was arrested in 1989, released in 2004 and then arrested again in 2007 on charges of organising protests.
Shin Gambira was a leader of the All-Burmese Monks Alliance, which played a prominent role in the 2007 protests that were violently suppressed by the junta. He was 27 years old when he was sentenced in 2007 to 68 years in prison.
"Ashin Gambira will be freed later today," said a prison official in Myaungmya prison, southwest of the commercial capital, Yangon, using an honorific for monks.
An official from Taunggyi prison in Shan State said two other prominent activists, Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko (Brother) Jimmy, and Ko Zaw Thet Htwe would be freed there.
"We are going to take them to the bus terminal later this morning," the official said.
Ko Jimmy's wife, Nilar Thein, will also be released from Tharyawadi prison in the centre of the country, a family member said. Both celebrated members of the 88 Generation Students Group, they were given 65 years in jail for their role in the 2007 protests, a sentence that effectively orphaned their infant daughter.
Another 88 Group leader, Htay Kywe, was being released, his brother in law said, adding that he had heard almost all members of the group, including another prominent activist, Khun Tun Oo, were being freed.
The exact number of political prisoners is unclear.
Rights groups and the United Nations have put it at about 2,100. But Minister for Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko told U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom?s Ojea Quintana in August the number was 600, or about 400 after the October 12 amnesty.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that tracks prisoners, had identified 1,536 "political prisoners" before today's release.
But diplomats and some independent analysts question those numbers and say they depend on different definitions of political prisoners and whether rebels or those who used force to oppose the government are included.
A review of the AAPP's list of prisoners by European diplomatic missions in Thailand suggested the number of non-combatant "prisoners of conscience" appeared to be about 600, or about 800 before October's amnesty.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy provides help to more than 460 people it considers "prisoners of conscience," according to Naing Naing, the party official in charge of its assistance, adding that there "a few dozen" more who did not seek its help.
(Writing by Jason Szep and Alan Raybould; Editing by Robeert Birsel)