By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar was set to free thousands of prisoners on Wednesday under a general amnesty and the United States said it would be a "very positive sign" if the release included political detainees jailed by the Southeast Asian nation's autocratic rulers.
The United States, Europe and Australia have said freeing an estimated 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar is essential to even considering lifting sanctions that have crippled the pariah state and, over years, driven it closer to China.
"We're encouraged by the steps we see the government taking ... we're going to take them at their word," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Reuters, although she added it was premature to predict how Washington might respond.
"But we want to see actions. And if they are going to release political prisoners that would be a very positive sign."
Myanmar state television said on Tuesday 6,359 prisoners would be freed on the Thadingyut full moon festival on Wednesday, but did not say if they would include political detainees.
Previous general amnesties have included only a token number of political prisoners but there may be more reason for optimism this time as Myanmar's government seeks to distance itself from China and makes overtures to the West.
The army nominally handed over power in March to civilians after elections in November, a process ridiculed at the time as a sham to cement authoritarian rule behind a democratic facade.
But President Thein Sein, a retired general but the first civilian head of state in half a century, has initiated overtures including calls for peace with ethnic minority guerrillas, some tolerance of criticism and more communication with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released last year from 15 years of house arrest.
One member of parliament who attended a meeting on Friday in the capital, Naypyitaw, told Reuters the release of political prisoners could come "in a few days." He said that was the message given by Shwe Mann, the lower house speaker.
And the new national human rights commission called on the president in an open letter published in state media on Tuesday to free prisoners who did not pose "a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility."
PRESSURE TO OPEN UP
The open letter marks a significant shift in the former British colony, also known as Burma, where authorities have long refused to recognize the existence of political prisoners, usually dismissing such detainees as common criminals.
The government has faced pressure for change on multiple fronts - from the wildly popular Suu Kyi to the need to find alternatives to China in the face of popular resentment of its influence, to growing frustration in Southeast Asia over Myanmar's isolation as the region approaches an EU-style Asian community in 2015.
Diplomats say other factors play into Myanmar's desire to open up, include a need for technical assistance from the World Bank and other multilateral institutions which cut off ties years ago in response to rights abuses.
Nestled strategically between powerhouses India and China, Myanmar has been one of the world's most difficult destinations for investors, restricted by sanctions, blighted by half a century of oppressive military rule and starved of capital despite rich natural resources, from gems to timber to oil.
The country's infrastructure is in shambles and its economy has few sources of growth beyond investment from China and Thailand. About 30 percent of the 50 million people live in poverty, according to U.N. data.
Some analysts say Myanmar also wants to show the United States that it is independent of China.
Last week, the government suspended a $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project, a victory for supporters of Suu Kyi and a sign the country was willing to yield to popular resentment over China's growing influence.
These moves have stoked hopes the new parliament will slowly prise open the country that just over 50 years ago was one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest as the world's biggest rice exporter and a major energy producer.
In Tokyo, a foreign ministry official said Japan had resumed some aid to Myanmar in June after the release of Suu Kyi and other signs of reform.
"We may continue with this stance if there are more releases of political prisoners," the official said. "Work still needs to be done in terms of democracy but we think they are moving in the right direction."
But it remains unclear whether all political prisoners would be released at once, or indeed how many would be freed.
Nyan Win, a spokesman for Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said he had not heard whether political detainees would be freed. Families of prisoners also had not been told.
"We are still trying to find out," said Ma Nyein, sister-in-law of Zar Ga Nar, a jailed comedian and government critic.
(Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Robert Birsel)