Myanmar released prisoners on Thursday in a goodwill gesture ahead of a historic visit to the former military state by U.S. President Barack Obama, but activists and the main opposition party said there seemed to be no political detainees among them.
State media said early in the day that 452 prisoners would be freed with the "intent to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship". A Home Ministry official said some "prisoners of conscience" would be among them.
However, the National League for Democracy party of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said that was not the case.
"It's so disappointing that none of those freed today are political prisoners," said senior party official Naing Naing, himself a former detainee.
Myanmar has released about 800 political prisoners as part of a dramatic reform program over the past year and a half but it is believed to be still holding several hundred.
The prisoners released on Thursday included people who had been jailed for deserting the army or committing some other military offence, Naing Naing said. "Maybe these people are political prisoners by their yardstick."
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) had not heard of any political prisoners being among the 144 people it said had been released by mid-afternoon.
Families are often told by the authorities to prepare for the release of prisoners who can be in jails in distant provinces, but AAPP representative Bo Kyi said he was not aware of any being given such notice on this occasion.
Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar when he travels there during a November 17-20 tour of Southeast Asia that will also take in Thailand and Cambodia. He is due to meet President Thein Sein on Monday
Lawmakers, including John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, unite to present Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi with Congress' highest civilian honor in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda.
However, the BBC reported that Obama has been criticized by some who say it is too early to reward Myanmar’s regime.
"The manipulative use of prisoner releases just before key international moments is getting more blatant than ever," said Mark Farmaner of the London-based advocacy group Burma Campaign UK.
Over the past year, Myanmar, also known as Burma, has introduced the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup. A semi-civilian government stacked with former generals has allowed elections, eased rules on protests, relaxed censorship and freed some dissidents.
Up to a dozen people were killed by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that struck Myanmar on Sunday. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.
The United States eased sanctions on Myanmar this year in recognition of the political and economic change, and many U.S. companies are looking at starting operations in the country located between China and India, with its abundant resources and low-cost labor.
Obama has sought to consolidate ties and reinforce U.S. influence across Asia in what officials have described as a policy "pivot" toward the region as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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