Myanmar'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 Saturday of 82-year-old Tin Oo, who helped found the National League for Democracy with Suu Kyi, comes shortly before a U.N. envoy visits Myanmar, 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 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 said he 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 Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, is to arrive in Myanmar 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. The government says the vote will be held in 2010.
Suu Kyi's party won the last elections in 1990 by a landslide, but the military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962, refused to cede power and has constantly obstructed her party's operations over the past two decades.
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.