YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar freed at least 300 political prisoners including several prominent dissidents on Wednesday, leaving an estimated 1,800 behind bars, as one of the world's most reclusive states begins to open up after half a century of iron-fisted rule.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to Reuters before a general amnesty for 6,359 prisoners including political detainees, said she was encouraged by "promising signals" of reform but that it was too early to announce steps Washington might take in response.
The United States, Europe and Australia have said freeing Myanmar's political prisoners is essential to even considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and, over years, driven it closer to China.
A senior prison official told Reuters about 300 dissidents were freed Wednesday.
"We hope many more will be released," said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, herself freed from 15 years of house arrest last year. "I'm really thankful for the release of political prisoners," she told supporters.
After weeks of rare overtures, including a loosening of some media controls and more dialogue with Suu Kyi, the number was less than many had expected, raising questions over how soon and how fast the former British colony is willing to open up, under pressure for change on multiple fronts, including popular resentment at China's new influence.
"It is disappointing," said Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International's Myanmar researcher based in Bangkok. "We had reason to expect, given the rather fast and qualitative steps that have taken place over the past several months, that today's release would be more substantial numerically."
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has released dissidents only to detain them again, but with more freed than in the past, there was reason to believe this time would be different.
The army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after the first elections in two decades in November, a process mocked at the time as a scripted sham to seal authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.
Since then, President Thein Sein, a retired general but the first civilian head of state in half a century, has begun a number of reforms, including calls to win over restive ethnic minorities, some tolerance of criticism and more diplomacy.
MANY STILL BEHIND BARS
The most prominent freed dissident appeared to be Zarganar, a comedian sentenced in 2008 to 59 years in a remote prison after criticising the then-ruling generals for their sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 140,000 people when it slammed into the Irrawaddy delta a month earlier.
Also freed was Sai Say Htan, a leader of the Shan State Army. The ethnic rebel group fought successive military regimes that ruled following a 1962 coup. He was sentenced to 104 years in prison in 2005 for refusing to help draft a new constitution.
Many more remained in jail, including a group of activists who led a failed 1988 uprising.
Diplomats in Yangon said other dissidents may well be freed in weeks ahead after state media published Tuesday an open letter by a new government-appointed rights body urging the president to free those not posing "a threat to stability."
Myanmar faces mounting pressure to end a half-century of isolation, in part to find alternatives to fast-growing trade with China and to pacify Southeast Asian concerns as the region seeks to become an EU-style Asian community in 2015.
Its infrastructure is in shambles and its sanctions-hit economy has few sources of growth beyond investment from China, a historic rival whose expanding influence in the country has stoked popular resentment.
Myanmar also appears to be trying to convince the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to allow it to take its rotating presidency in 2014, two years ahead of schedule and a year before the next general election.
"The prisoner release is a conciliatory gesture at a time when the government feels more secure about it's position," said Joseph Cheng, a Myanmar analyst and professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong.
"It's aim is to boost its relationship and acceptance from ASEAN and for this government and this new system to be considered legitimate."
Hosting ASEAN would give Myanmar a degree of international recognition and help to convince the World Bank and other multilateral institutions to return to the impoverished nation -- steps that could benefit state-linked firms and a powerful business elite that includes former senior generals.
"This is part of a process that is aiming for international acceptance and removal of sanctions which will allow access to international financial institutions that will benefit the government and the elite," said Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based author and expert on Myanmar.
The European Union welcomed the release but said it would judge the move based on how many were eventually freed.
Nestled strategically between powerhouses India and China, Myanmar has been off the radar for most investors, its economy blighted by decades of inept military rule and starved of capital, despite rich natural resources, from gems and timber to oil and natural gas.
Last week, the government suspended a $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project, a victory for Suu Kyi and her allies and a sign the country could yield to popular sentiment.
These moves raised hopes the new parliament, dominated by an army-backed party, will slowly prise open a country that just over 50 years ago was one of Asia's wealthiest -- the world's biggest rice exporter and a major energy producer.
"We're encouraged by the steps we see the government taking ... we're going to take them at their word," Clinton said in an interview with Reuters in Washington. "But we want to see actions. And if they are going to release political prisoners, that would be a very positive sign."