Myanmar's military junta released on Thursday five high-profile dissidents it arrested in September at a time of intensifying international pressure on the ruling generals to take concrete steps towards democracy.
Their release by the former Burma's military rulers, who also freed 40 political detainees last week as part of a mass prisoner release to mark the 59th anniversary of independence from Britain, was sudden and unexpected.
"We were all sent back home at about 1:30 this morning," Min Ko Naing, a leader of a pro-democracy student uprising in 1988, said.
He said he and his colleagues were in good health.
Asked why he thought they had been released, he told the agency: "As we all know, it is mounting pressure at the UNSC," referring to US efforts to have the United Nations Security Council put pressure on the generals.
Anti-junta pressure groups agreed the release was timed to deflect attention from efforts by the United States to get the Security Council to press Myanmar this week into easing repression and beginning a promised transition to democracy.
"This looks like nothing but a cynical ploy to stop the UN Security Council from taking action," said Aung Din, policy director of the Washington-based US Campaign for Burma.
The other freed activists are Ko Ko Gyi, Ko Htay Kywe, Ko Pyone Cho and Ko Min Zeya, all of whom played prominent roles in the nationwide 1988 protests in which several thousand people were killed after the army moved in to quell the dissent.
Since 1988, each has spent between nine and 15 years behind bars. Within the country, they are viewed as the most prominent anti-junta figures after opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate who is under house arrest.
"Ko Htay Kywe and I were kept at the same place but in different buildings. We came to know that we were there together only after our release," Min Ko Naing said.
"The rest were kept somewhere else. But we all were treated well." Imprisonment had not cowed them into giving up, he said.
"We are determined to keep on working for the emergence of national reconciliation and democracy in our country through dialogue. We will continue all our campaigns," he said.
Myanmar has been under military rule of one form or another since 1962. The present junta suffered a landslide election defeat to Suu Kyi's National League Democracy in 1990, but ignored the result.