Myanmar, once a pariah, pardons prisoners ahead of regional summit

Over 3,000 prisoners were released Tuesday, the latest in a series of gestures by a reformist government that has opened the doors to Western investment and political engagement. President Obama is due to attend a regional summit next month.

Khin Maung Win/AP
Prisoners get off a truck after they were released from a prison in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday. The Myanmar government pardoned 3,073 prisoners, a month before a summit of regional leaders convenes in the country.

Myanmar's government pardoned 3,073 prisoners on Tuesday in the latest show of political reform in Southeast Asia's poorest country.

The announcement follows at least a dozen similar releases by Myanmar’s semi-civilian government. Once deemed a pariah by Western powers, Myanmar has implemented far-reaching reforms since the end of military rule in 2011. 

The latest prisoner release comes ahead of a summit Myanmar is hosting in November of regional and international leaders, including President Barack Obama, Reuters reports. Myanmar, also known as Burma, often grants amnesty to prisoners before diplomatic meetings in an attempt to “bolster its reformist credentials.”

Myanmar's Ministry of Information said in a post on its website that the prisoners were being released “on humanitarian grounds,” the Associated Press reports. President Thein Sein cited “peace and stability” and “the rule of law” in a statement posted on Facebook.

Most of the prisoners were jailed for minor crimes, according to the AP, but at least eight were former intelligence officers arrested 10 years ago as part of a political purge. Fifty-eight were foreign nationals.

Human rights groups said it was unclear how many political prisoners were included in the release. They called on President Thein Sein, a former general who was elected in 2011 after five decades of military rule, to keep his promise of releasing all such detainees by the end of the year.

“This is nothing but an empty gesture on the authorities’ part,” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director, in an online statement. “If the Myanmar authorities were genuine about improving respect for human rights, they would follow through on the long-standing promise to clear the country’s jails of the dozens of peaceful activists still behind bars.” 

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group, said there were 80 political prisoners in Myanmar at the end of September. An additional 130 political prisoners are awaiting trial, AP reports.

Among those released were once prominent military intelligence officers, the Wall Street Journal reports:

These men, associates of former prime minister and head of military intelligence Khin Nyunt, had been detained since 2004, when Mr. Khin Nyunt fell out of favor with Myanmar’s former military government and was purged from their ranks. More than 20 of them were put behind bars, sentenced to lengthy sentences ostensibly for corruption and other charges they denied, while the former prime minister was put under house arrest.

Most international sanctions against Myanmar have been lifted as it continues with its reformist agenda. As a result, the country’s once stagnant economy, in which China has been a major investor, has boomed with an influx of new Asian and Western investment. 

On Monday, the International Monetary Fund estimated that Myanmar’s economy would grow by an average of eight percent in the coming years, Reuters reports: 

The IMF praised Myanmar for its economic reforms, but said more were needed at both policy and institutional level as the authorities' capacity was becoming stretched.

It also warned that risks to the economy were growing due to thin external and fiscal buffers, with the underlying fiscal deficit expected to increase to around 5.5 percent of GDP for the fiscal year ending in March next year.

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