By Aung Hla Tun
YANGON (Reuters) - Buddhist monk Shin Gambira endured solitary confinement, beatings and sleep deprivation in Myanmar's prisons for his leading role in the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" -- peaceful protests that were crushed by the country's military.
Finally free at a monastery on the outskirts of Myanmar's main city of Yangon, about the worst he will say of his captors is that they were "very rude and cruel".
"Don't let me elaborate on it. Let bygones be bygones," the 33-year-old former protest leader said of his ordeal, following his release last week with about 300 other political prisoners.
Interviews by Reuters with more than a dozen of the newly released prisoners in recent days reveal a similar remarkable lack of bitterness toward their captors after years of imprisonment and torture for their beliefs. They described overcrowded cells at the notorious Insein detention center, watching a fellow inmate die from a lack of medical care, and routine deprivation of water and sleep among other abuses.
But nearly all said they backed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's decision to place trust in the government's reform pledges and take part in April by-elections that could give her National League for Democracy (NLD) party a vital foothold in parliament, part of dramatic changes underway in the former Burma.
"This is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi trying in the most non-violent way to work for the country's transition to democracy. We support this," said Htay Kywe, a leader of the "88 generation" students group, referring to Suu Kyi by her honorific title.
Htay Kywe and many other prisoners released last week helped to lead pro-democracy protests in 1988 in which thousands of demonstrators were killed by soldiers.
The largest release yet of high-profile dissidents promises to speed up the national reconciliation process and provides a powerful argument for the United States and other Western nations to lift economic sanctions against the impoverished but resource-rich country.
Business executives, mostly from Asia, have swarmed into the commercial capital, Yangon, in recent weeks to hunt for investment opportunities in the country of 60 million people, one of the last frontier markets in Asia. Myanmar is also at the center of a struggle for strategic influence as the United States sees a chance to expand its ties there and balance China's fast-growing economic and political clout in the region.
Myanmar has thawed astonishingly quickly in the past year.
The government has begun peace talks with ethnic rebels, relaxed its strict media censorship, allowed trade unions and protests, and showed signs of pulling back from the powerful economic and political orbit of its giant neighbor China. It was rewarded last November when Hillary Clinton made the first visit to the country by a U.S. secretary of state since 1955.
The exact number of political detainees still locked up in Myanmar's prisons remains in doubt. But the opposition and government agree it is now in the hundreds. That may not be much higher than some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, making it hard for countries to argue in favor of maintaining sanctions.
Communist Vietnam, which has a bilateral trade deal with Washington, for instance, probably has political prisoners "in the hundreds", said Bangkok-based Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.
Still, the interviews with the former prisoners in Myanmar reveal an undercurrent of skepticism about the government's true intentions and an impatience for more concrete democratic reforms.
Many also expressed concern that Suu Kyi risks weakening her powerful political capital if, as some believe, she takes a ministerial role as part of the reconciliation process. That could point to future tensions within the opposition and complicate the reform process if the pace of change stutters in coming months.
Last week's release brings the number of political detainees freed since last May to 645, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. This number represents a significant body of high-profile dissidents who are likely to influence internal opposition debate.
The latest group, ranging from the former head of military intelligence to a musician who penned songs about Suu Kyi, rejoin the political scene just as the government and opposition engage in a delicate, high-stakes dance toward reconciliation.
The views of this respected group of dissident opinion-formers are a vital gauge of support for Suu Kyi's leap of faith in engaging with the nominally civilian government. If they clamor for faster reforms than the government or Suu Kyi is comfortable with, for example, it could risk a backlash from military hardliners who many observers believe are eager for a chance to reverse the democratization process.
"We shouldn't settle for the present situation, there is a lot to be done," said Gambira, the freed Buddhist monk.
"Since the people were deprived of everything under a brutal regime for about 50 years they tend to be satisfied when they get something, compared with nothing in the past. I'd like to stress there is no room for complacency at present."
Skeptics worry that Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, herself released from house arrest in late 2010, could be walking into a trap, handing valuable international legitimacy to the government before any fundamental changes in Myanmar's political system are secured. The United States, which has made the freeing of political prisoners a condition for lifting sanctions, said after the latest release it would exchange ambassadors with Myanmar for the first time in 20 years.
But Myanmar's generals still effectively control parliament after a deeply flawed 2010 election and the constitution, written in 2008, guarantees the military's dominant role in politics.
"Concerning the overall political situation, I'm not that optimistic. I'll put it at about 55 percent," said Khun Tun Oo, chairman of an ethnic Shan party allied to Suu Kyi's NLD and who was released after nearly seven years in jail.
He plans to re-register his party but not to run in the upcoming by-elections, which many believe would legitimize the 2010 elections widely seen as a sham.
"No doubt she (Suu Kyi) will have her say but I'm not sure she will be able to change the constitution ... the military is in a position to put a spanner in the works since they have the constitutional right."
MEDITATION AND GARDENING
Khun Tun Oo appears to have suffered relatively little torture in prison, but others were less fortunate.
Sithu Zeya, a 22-year-old journalist for exiled media outlet Democratic Voice of Burma, said he had to drink toilet water for the first five days in prison in 2010 and went without sleep for 15 days. He was regularly beaten and saw an old man in his cell die from breathing difficulties after medical help failed to arrive on time. Like many fellow prisoners, he found solace in meditation and limited chances to read and play sports.
"We have been released because foreign countries demanded it, not because they (the government) think it was wrong to have political prisoners," the former biology student told Reuters.
He said he supported Suu Kyi's participation in the elections but worried she would be a weaker voice as a lawmaker. "I don't want that to happen," he said.
Perhaps the most remarkable figure to emerge from detention last week was former military intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt, whose purge from the government in 2004 turned him overnight from one of the regime's most powerful figures into a lowly prisoner.
Ironically, he coped with his seven years under house arrest on charges of corruption in much the same way as Suu Kyi -- meditating every day and tending to his garden.
Deprived of financial support, he said he and his wife scraped a living by selling orchids from their garden and later by selling his clothes, including traditional silk "longyi" garments he had received as gifts when he was thought to be the regime's third most powerful official.
"It's embarrassing to tell this but this is the truth," he told Reuters at his home and former prison.
He ruled out a return to politics, saying he wanted to focus on his religious practice. Asked if he thought President Thein Sein could operate independently in his dealings with Suu Kyi, he smiled. "I think so, but I don't know for sure."
A concern repeatedly voiced by the freed dissidents was that the revered Suu Kyi could jeopardize her iconic and clean status by being drawn into a flawed political system.
"I'm fully confident in Aunty Suu's leadership. She's a national leader," said 32-year-old blogger Nay Phone Latt, who was picked up by security forces at a Yangon café in January 2008. "But I'm really worried that she will become a cabinet member. Then she might lose contact with the party."
Win Min, a Burmese political scientist at Harvard University and a student protester in the 1988 uprising, said the newly released 88 generation faced a challenge to push for genuine reforms without giving hardliners an excuse to crack down.
"At this critical juncture, 88 generation leaders may want to work in a space between the politics of struggle and normal politics to encourage the continuation of reform in a non-threatening way to the hardliners," he said.
"For the moderates in the government, the challenge is how to work with the opposition and the 88 generation leaders to improve the economy on the grassroots level."
"PEOPLE STILL SUFFERING"
Many freed prisoners cautioned that ordinary Burmese, struggling in poverty and often at the mercy of authoritarian local officials, have yet to benefit from the changes.
"They keep saying the higher authorities have changed, but the officials on the ground have not changed so the people are still suffering," said Zeya, the journalist. "The reforms have yet to make positive impacts on the general public so I can't say they are successful just yet."
A near-term source of tension is likely to be the fate of the political prisoners who remain behind bars.
Of the 604 political prisoners claimed by the NLD, the government only released 302 by its count, saying that 107 had already been released, others had been double-counted or died and that 128 would not be freed because they had committed serious crimes such as using explosives.
"I want the government to carry out more meaningful changes like releasing the remaining prisoners of conscience, which really will benefit the people and the country," said Nilar Thein, a female leader of the 88 generation whose latest arrest was in 2008.
For her, though, the most promising sign of real change in Myanmar was the confident smiles that greeted her on her recent release from detention. "I was really encouraged to see the courage and confidence on the faces of the people," she said.
"There is more transparency then before. It was a big difference from my previous releases."
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Bangkok.; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Jason Szep and Mark Bendeich)