YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar started releasing nearly 70 political prisoners Tuesday, just days after the president promised during a European tour to free all who remain behind bars for opposing the government by the year's end.
The continued incarceration of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, which is in the process of opening up following decades of isolation and brutal military rule, has been a key concern of the United States and other Western nations.
After Tuesday's releases, which included members of several ethnic minorities, more than 130 political prisoners are still believed to be behind bars.
Many new arrests and trials, meanwhile, are reported every month, increasingly for peaceful protests against illegal land seizures by the rich and powerful.
"It is important that the president has been releasing political prisoners," said Thet Oo, a member of the former political prisoner society. "But it's more important to stop arresting and charging those who are fighting for citizen's rights."
One of the big problems, critics say, is that all the repressive laws that put political prisoners in jail in the first place are still in place.
They accuse the government of only releasing inmates in small batches and usually for public relations purposes.
Thein Sein's tour to London and Paris was aimed in part at cleaning up his country's image following bloody sectarian violence – mostly radical Buddhist mobs targeting Muslims.
Though more than 250 people have been killed, many allegedly with the backing of security forces, he told France TV that allegations of "ethnic cleansing" were part of a "smear campaign" by outsiders.
One of his promises during the trip was the release of more prisoners.
Ye Aung, a member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, said in total 69 people were being released from various prisons across the country Tuesday.
Among them were Brang Shawng, an inmate who had been serving time at the notorious Insein prison in the northern outskirts or Yangon for alleged links to illegal organizations in the troubled state of Kachin, said Thet Oo.
Some members of Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party also were waiting for the release of prisoners in front of Mandalay prison.
Win Mya Mya, of the NLD, said eight had been released by late afternoon, six from the Shan State National Army and two from the Kachin Independence Organization.