YANGON – Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on Thursday released almost 7,000 political prisoners on a presidential pardon, including more than 200 foreigners and former military-intelligence officers, according to officials.
Among the foreigners released were 153 Chinese loggers who had been sentenced to life in jail last week, a move that could ease tensions between Myanmar and its northern neighbor.
Zaw Htay, director of the office of President Thein Sein, said in an interview that 6,966 prisoners were released in an amnesty, including 210 foreigners and nine former military-intelligence officers who were purged under Myanmar’s previous ruling junta.
He didn’t provide details on the foreigners who were released. But Win Naing Lynn, head of the prison in Myitkyina where the Chinese loggers were being held on charges of illegal logging, said that all of them had been released “in accordance with the amnesty, and the friendship between China and Myanmar.”
The loggers had been dealt unusually long sentences by the Myanmar government. Their arrest had angered officials in China, who had urged Myanmar to reconsider the length and severity of the sentences.
Hong Lei, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said that China had been in “close communications” with Myanmar throughout the process, according to a statement posted on the foreign ministry’s website. The statement added that the Myanmar government was handing over the individuals to Chinese authorities.
Thursday’s amnesty was one of the largest that Myanmar has seen in recent years. But activists and officials say they haven’t yet determined how many prisoners of conscience were among those released. A representative for the Bi Mon Te Nay journal, a weekly publication in Myanmar, said that four of their journalists and the publisher of the journal were released after spending almost a year in jail for articles that the government considered defamatory.
Among the military-intelligence officers released was Than Tun, a former brigadier general, and Tin Htut, son-in-law of the former prime minister and head of military intelligence Khin Nyunt.
About half a dozen other former military-intelligence officials were released late last year in a similar amnesty. These men were close associates of Mr. Khin Nyunt, released in 2012 after spending almost a decade under house arrest after falling out of favor with Myanmar’s military hard-liner Senior General Than Shwe, who led the former junta.
The prisoners were freed from various locations across the country, including the notorious Insein prison north of downtown Yangon, where thousands of political prisoners were held under Myanmar’s military regime. Relatives gathered outside the prison gates on Thursday morning, waiting for news of their incarcerated family members.
The presidential pardons are in line with Mr. Thein Sein’s promise to free all prisoners of conscience, and others purged by the military regime, during his term. Myanmar jails were supposed to be free of prisoners of conscience by 2014, but the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog group which monitors the situation of political prisoners in Myanmar, says about 158 remain.
The amnesty comes as Myanmar gears up for a landmark election this November, which will be a key test of how far democratic reform has taken hold in this former pariah state after nearly six decades under military rule.
Mr. Thein Sein, who has led the nominally-civilian government since 2011, hasn’t ruled out seeking a second term as president, officials say