Crowds of anxious relatives gathered around several Myanmar prisons Thursday as the country released almost 7,000 inmates under a massive presidential pardon.
Those freed include 155 Chinese nationals who were sentenced to life in prison earlier this month for illegally logging, along with former military intelligence officials and dissident journalists, reports the Associated Press.
The release of 6,966 prisoners, including 210 foreigners, was granted "on humanitarian grounds and in view of national reconciliation," says an Information Ministry statement, adding that the pardon is a measure to promote “goodwill and is aimed at keeping a friendly relationship between countries."
President Thein Sein’s amnesty coincides with a Buddhist religious holiday and comes ahead of a general election in November.
The latest notable release occurred in October 2014, when the government pardoned over 3,000 prisoners as part of a grand political overhaul it promised upon coming into power in 2011, bringing an end to almost five decades of military rule under the former junta, The Christian Science Monitor reported.
Though China and Myanmar are close allies, tensions sparked between the two over the arrest of the Chinese loggers. They were detained in the northern Kachin state, where Chinese companies have been accused of working with local military and rebel forces to exploit the area’s rich natural resources, reports Agence France-Presse.
The Information Ministry statement says both countries had been in “close communication” over the issue in recent weeks. On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry said Myanmar authorities promised to hand over the 155 jailed to Chinese officials.
But not everyone was happy with their release.
Many in Myanmar denounced their pardon on local media sites, accusing the government of being "stupid" and "scared of the Chinese," reports AFP.
While little is known of the remaining pardoned prisoners, the Associated Press says most of them were common criminals. Their amnesty, along with that of the Chinese loggers, “raises serious doubts regarding Burma’s sovereignty and the validity of the rule of law in the country,” wrote the activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
President Sein vowed to free all those purged by the former regime during his term. In line with that promise, Myanmar jails were supposed to be free of political prisoners by 2014, reports The Wall Street Journal. But the AAPP says only 13 of those inmates have been released.
“This number is drastically disproportionate to the amount of political activists currently detained, with the 13 political prisoners all serving relatively short terms of imprisonment, or had in some cases almost completed their sentences,” writes the AAPP.
Currently, 120 political prisoners are behind bars, while 444 people are still awaiting trial, the activist group says. It has called on the Burmese government to “unconditionally release the remaining political prisoners ahead of the November election, and end the ongoing trials of those facing charges.”