Asia-Pacific

Burma 'to grant prisoner amnesty'

File image of people walking past Insein prison in Rangoon, Burma
Image caption Insein jail, on the outskirts of Rangoon, has housed hundreds of political prisoners

Burma's president is to grant amnesty to more than 6,300 prisoners, state-controlled media has announced.

The announcement, on state television, did not specify how many of those freed would be political detainees.

But the news came hours after Burma's new human rights body called for the release of "prisoners of conscience" who did not threaten state stability.

On Monday the US said if Burma showed concrete progress on issues like political prisoners, it would respond.

Western nations currently impose sanctions on Burma, and one of the key reasons is political prisoners.

Thought to number more than 2,000, they include journalists, pro-democracy activists, government critics, monks involved in anti-government protests in 2007 and members of Burma's ethnic groups fighting for greater autonomy.

'Nation-building'

The amnesty announcement came in a lunchtime broadcast. A total of 6,359 prisoners are to be freed and releases will begin on Wednesday.

The report did not say whether the amnesty included political prisoners - Burma has in the past carried out large-scale amnesties without freeing political prisoners.

It announced an amnesty of 15,000 prisoners in May 2011 and freed more than 7,000 in 2009 - but those moves were criticised by rights groups for failing to include political prisoners.

In recent days, however, there have been reports from Burma, citing unidentified government officials, suggesting an amnesty of some political prisoners could be imminent.

The announcement came on the same day that Burma's new human rights commission called on the president to release "prisoners of conscience".

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Media captionDr Maung Zarni: "I am optimistic but I am also very cautious"

In an letter published in state media, the commission said those who did not "pose a threat to the stability of state" should be freed to help with nation-building.

The commission of scholars and former bureaucrats was only set up last month, as part of a series of moves by the government to improve Burma's international reputation.

Burma held its first elections in two decades almost a year ago - polls which saw military rule replaced with a military-backed civilian-led government.

Since then the government has freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and held dialogue with her.

On Monday a top US diplomat, Kurt Campbell, said the US had noted "dramatic developments under way" in Burma.

He said Washington wanted to see concrete progress on issues like political prisoners - and if it did, the US would respond.

"We will match their steps with comparable steps," he said.

But Nyan Win, a spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, told the BBC that a prisoner release was not all that was needed.

"The release of political prisoners is just one of the barometers of the government's seriousness about a change to democracy," he said.

"There should be other developments like media freedom, and the relaxation of censorship among other things."