Burma frees 180 political dissidents, but many more remain behind bars


UPDATE: Burma has freed more than 180 political prisoners as part of a mass amnesty by the government, BBC reports. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed the move, but activists also pushed for more of the country's 2,000 imprisoned dissidents to be set free. Among those still in prison are Shin Gambira, a young monk who helped lead the 2007 demonstrations, and famous activist Min Ko Naing.

Burma freed one of its most famous dissidents, comedian Zarganar, Wednesday as part of a mass amnesty, the Bangkok Post reports.

Authorities arrested Zarganar in 2008 after he helped organize deliveries of aid to Cyclone Nargis survivors and then gave interviews to foreign media in which he criticized the government's response to the deadly disaster, the Associated Press reports. The regime sentenced Zarganar, who has long been a critic of Burma's rulers, to 59 years in prison. His sentence was then reduced to 35 years.

"I have talked to him. He is free now," Zarganar's sister-in-law, Ma Nyein, told AFP Wednesday. She said the family now expects him to fly home from Myitkyina in northern Kachin State.

More from GlobalPost: Myanmar to free thousands of prisoners

The release of Zarganar in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, comes a day after state television announced an amnesty for 6,300 prisoners on humanitarian grounds. The announcement came hours after a government-appointed human rights panel called for a pardon for Burma's political “prisoners of conscience."

It had not been known whether the authorities would include in the release the approximately 2,000 political prisoners being held in Burma.

A column in the Guardian Tuesday argued that if the political prisoners were released it would be the result of a careful political and economic calculation made by the regime.

"It seems unlikely that [President] Thein Sein and his cronies have suddenly seen the moral light, or that they have finally bowed under the weight of western disapproval. If substantial numbers of political prisoners are released on Wednesday, it will be the result of some very hard-headed, unsentimental calculations," Simon Tisdall writes.

"One is that Burma's resource-rich economy, hobbled for years by dictatorship, isolation and under-investment, is set to take off, if western sanctions and restrictions are lifted."

The release of Zarganar gives some hope that more political prisoners will be freed Wednesday.

One fan of the comedian wrote on Facebook early Wednesday: "They are out! They are coming out! Zargana is out! Hurray!"