Family members of prisoners wait for their release outside the Insein central prison in Rangoon, Burma, on Oct. 12, 2011. (Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images)

Saw Hlaing has been sentenced seven times by Burma’s military-style courts and has spent more than 14 years in jails across the country.

During his most recent term behind bars — about 6½ years — his wife died, as did his father, his son became a man, and his daughter gave birth to his first grandchild.

But the former right-hand man of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says he is one of the lucky ones.

“There are many more people in prison, and they must be released immediately,” he said.

Since President Thein Sein took office in March of last year, more than 650 political detainees have been freed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a group that collects information on prisoners. The releases were a key factor in the U.S. decision last month to lift some investment and financial sanctions as Burma’s leaders begin to implement change after decades of often-brutal military rule.

But the United States, other Western governments, human rights groups and the opposition continue to demand an amnesty for all political detainees remaining in the country. The question is: How many, exactly, are there?

“It depends on the definition of a political prisoner,” said Naing Naing, whom Suu Kyi has tasked with maintaining a list of detainees from his shabby wooden desk at their party headquarters in Rangoon.

Many activists are still detained under draconian state security laws that remain despite the flurry of legal changes in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Others were jailed for more-
innocuous offenses, such as owning a computer or a fax machine.

These cases are typically a front for underlying political persecution. But in others the opaque motives of the regime — past and present — have remained unclear, even in the few cases that involve foreigners.

More contentious among activists and opposition figures is whether former military intelligence officials jailed after a purge in late 2004 should be included on political-prisoner lists. Many in that group were directly involved in detaining activists.

Former prime minister and spy chief Khin Nyunt and his son were released in January, but many lesser operatives, business associates, friends and family members linked with this out-of-favor faction remain behind bars. Few, if any, of their names appear on prisoner lists drawn up by campaign groups.

Naing Naing estimates that at least 245 political prisoners remain in Burma but concedes that it is impossible to know. Many are held in remote prisons, and the government has maintained strict secrecy in terms of who they are and what exactly they may have done in some cases. Equally unclear is why some are released and others, sometimes convicted on lesser offenses, are not.

“We don’t have any idea how they make the lists of people they have released,” Naing Naing said.

Suu Kyi, the United Nations and Western governments have privately pressed Burmese authorities to collaborate on a mechanism to identify and release political detainees, but progress remains slow and difficult.

Derek Mitchell, the new U.S. ambassador in Rangoon, said authorities could start by making prison and court records public alongside a formal consultation process with political parties, Burma’s many ethnic groups and families of prisoners.

“Ultimately, we want the government to establish a structured, credible process to resolve disputed political-prisoner cases and close the book on this issue definitively,” he said.

The United Nations’ human rights envoy, Tomas Ojea Quintana, noted this year that the government classifies many as “convicted with irrefutable evidence,” while the International Committee of the Red Cross has not been granted access to a Burmese jail since 2005.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to make secretive arrests amid sporadic clashes between government forces and insurgents in the north of Burma and in the west, where sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine state broke out in June.

“If the government has a case to bring against someone for rioting or insurgent activity, it should make the case,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The government has made only patchy progress on the treatment of prisoners after their release, according to those recently freed, another factor considered under sanctions.

Soon after Saw Hlaing was released from a prison far from his home — a tactic that keeps detainees from their families, another grievance of government critics — he was found to have liver cancer, a condition he attributed to years of terrible prison food and water poisoned by colonial-era lead pipes at the jail.

When doctors said he could not be treated in Burma, Suu Kyi and other well-wishers, as well as a hospital in Mandalay, donated tens of thousands of dollars so he could receive treatment abroad, but the authorities took three months to supply a passport, he said.

His 23-year-old son then donated half of his healthy liver, and Saw Hlaing said he spent six months in a New Delhi hospital recovering after a transplant operation. After he returned to Rangoon on Aug. 6, the government placed a restriction on his passport, preventing him from traveling abroad freely.

Burma has seen significant progress toward freedom for its citizens, Saw Hlaing said, grinning, “but the road is very rough.”