YANGON, Burma – Burma's ruling junta released the deputy leader of the country's pro-democracy party from nearly seven years in detention, but offered no indication that he or still-detained party leader Aung San Suu Kyi would be allowed to take part in this year's elections.
The release of the 82-year-old Tin Oo, who helped found the National League for Democracy with Suu Kyi, comes shortly before a U.N. envoy visits Burma, also known as Burma, to evaluate the regime's progress on human rights.
"The release of Tin Oo is very welcome, but we should not attach any political significance to the release," said Mark Farmaner, director of the rights group Burma Campaign UK. "Burmese democracy activists are regularly released when the generals want to score points with the international community, and are then arrested again later."
Speaking after police officers entered his house and announced his release, a defiant Tin Oo told reporters, "I will continue to work for democracy."
Tin Oo, whose latest term of detention expired Saturday, had spent nearly seven years in prison and under house arrest. The junta renewed his detention on an annual basis since his arrest in 2003.
Wearing the peach-colored traditional jacket of the league, Tin Oo said he was "very hopeful" Suu Kyi would also soon be released, noting that in 1995 he was released from an earlier stint in prison not long before Suu Kyi herself was set free.
Tin Oo said he would ask authorities to allow him to visit Suu Kyi, and thanked the United Nations, European Union and others for pressing for his release.
In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Tin Oo's release and hoped it would promote "substantive dialogue" between the National League for Democracy and the government. He also urged the lifting of restrictions on Suu Kyi "without further delay" and the release of other political prisoners.
The United Nations' special envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, is to arrive in Burma on Monday. Human rights groups say the junta still holds some 2,100 political prisoner, including Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi.
"The fact that there still are over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma and if the elections are to be credible, they need to be able to participate along with all representative groups in the elections," said British Ambassador Andrew Heynes shortly after Tin Oo's release.
Suu Kyi has been detained for 14 of the past 20 years. Her house arrest was extended in August by an additional 18 months which would prevent her from taking part in the first national elections in 20 years which the government says will be held in 2010. Junta chief Senior Gen. Than Shwe reiterated Friday the vote would be held "soon" but gave no date.
The regime still needs to pass necessary election laws to pave the way for the vote.
Suu Kyi's party won the last elections in 1990 by a landslide, but the military, which has ruled Burma since 1962, refused to cede power and has constantly obstructed her party's operations in the past two decades.
Tin Oo is respected by many of his party members for his outspokenness and courage.
A highly decorated commander, Tin Oo rose to the rank of general and served as defense minister during the 26-yera socialist regime of deceased dictator Ne Win. He was forced into retirement in 1976 and imprisoned for three years for alleged involvement in a plot to kill Ne Win. But it is widely believed that Ne Win wanted to eliminate the highly popular Tin Oo as a potential rival.
Tin Oo spent another three years in prison after the founding of Suu Kyi's league. A trusted ally to Suu Kyi, Tin Oo accompanied the party leader on her travels around the country to rally for democracy.
His latest detention began after Tin Oo was arrested along with Suu Kyi on May 30, 2003, when a pro-government mob attacked their motorcade as they were making a political tour of northern Burma.
Four people were killed and 50 injured in the incident, according to official figures, but dissidents say the death toll was much higher. Hundreds of members and supporters of Suu Kyi's party were arrested, but none of the attackers was ever brought to court.
Tin Oo was initially held in Kalay prison, known for its harsh conditions, about 430 miles north of Yangon. Since February 2004 he has been under house arrest in Yangon. His telephone was cut off, he was not allowed to receive visitors and relatives said he had been denied regular medical checkups.
Home Minister Maj. Gen. Maung Oo reportedly said last month that Tin Oo would be freed in February and Suu Kyi would be released in November. His comments were made during remarks to local officials in central Burma and reported by the U.S.-government backed Radio Free Asia and other media, and could not be independently confirmed.
Suu Kyi's party has not yet decided whether to take part in the upcoming elections. The party says the new constitution of 2008 is unfair and will perpetuate military rule — a claim backed by international rights groups. The constitution guarantees that 25 percent of parliamentary seats will go to the military. It also has a clause that would effectively bar Suu Kyi from holding office.