YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar freed some political prisoners and 155 Chinese citizens jailed for illegal logging in an amnesty for nearly 7,000 people on Thursday, a move that could ease diplomatic tensions with influential neighbour China.
A total of 6,966 prisoners were pardoned including the Chinese citizens held in Kachin state, of which 153 were given life sentences last week that prompted a diplomatic protest by an “extremely concerned” China.
Thirteen of those released were prisoners of conscience, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which said it was still checking names to confirm if more had been freed.
Despite Myanmar’s flurry of engagement with the West since a quasi-civilian government replaced a junta in 2011, its ties with China - its economic lifeline during two decades of sanctions - remain crucial to trade, security and energy.
Relations have soured this year over fighting between Myanmar’s army and a rebel militia that has seen Chinese citizens killed by stray shells in border areas.
The loggers were among 210 foreigners included in Thursday’s amnesty, according to prison, immigration and Home Ministry officials. China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the loggers had been released and said they would return home on Friday.
Myanmar’s incarceration of more than 2,000 journalists, activists, politicians and even comedians during military rule was a key factor behind the West’s imposition of sanctions, many of which were eased after hundreds were freed by the new government.
Human rights groups, however, say many are still in jail and others continue to be arrested. As of last week, there were 136 political prisoners in Myanmar and another 448 facing trial, according to AAPP.
“So far we have been able to confirm the release of only 13, comprising activists and four journalists who are on our list,” said Kyaw Soe of the AAPP. “We are still to reach our sources in the provinces.”
A senior prison official, who requested anonymity, said around nine former top members of the country’s powerful military intelligence, many of whom were purged under the junta, were among those released.
The Chinese loggers were arrested in January in a crackdown on Myanmar’s lucrative illegal logging and timber trade. More than 400 vehicles and 1,600 logs were seized during the raid, state media said at the time.
Myanmar’s porous border with China has long been a hotbed for illegal trade in timber and jade to feed Chinese demand.
That has fuelled resentment in Myanmar, which the Global Times tabloid, published by the Chinese ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, in an editorial last week said could have been the reason for the harsh sentences.
Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan in BEIJING; Writing by Timothy McLaughlin and Martin Petty; Editing by Jeremy Laurence