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Myanmar frees prisoners before Obama visit

Myanmar is said to free 452 prisoners ahead of US president Barack Obama’s visit.

(L-R) US First Lady Michelle Obama, US President Barack Obama, US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden celebrate on election night November 7, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama and Biden won re-election to a second 4-year term. Picture: AFP.

YANGON - Myanmar plans to free 452 prisoners including an unidentified number of political prisoners, government officials said on Thursday, just days before a visit by US President Barack Obama to the former military state.

State media said the prisoners will be freed with the "intent to help promote goodwill and the bilateral relationship". An official in the Home Ministry said "prisoners of conscience" will be among those pardoned.

The timing of the amnesty is significant, coming days ahead of Obama's visit on Monday, the first to the country by a sitting US president.

The United States has repeatedly called for all remaining dissidents to be freed as a pre-condition for further economic rewards after suspending some sanctions imposed in response to human rights abuses carried out by a military junta that ceded power last year to a semi-civilian government.

The election of democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament in April helped to transform Myanmar's pariah image and convince the West to begin rolling back sanctions after a year of dramatic reforms, including the release of about 700 political prisoners in amnesties between May 2011 and July 2012.

Nearly 90 political prisoners were freed in September but several hundred remain behind bars.

The United States has seen ties warm rapidly with Myanmar since a quasi-civilian government took office there in March 2011, ending five decades of military rule.

The new government has launched rapid reforms, including an overhaul of the economy, an easing of censorship, and the legalisation of trade unions and protests.

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