Myanmar amnesty frees Chinese loggers, political prisoners

Hla-Hla Htay

Myanmar on Thursday released 155 Chinese nationals, who were last week jailed for illegal logging, as a "goodwill" gesture following intense lobbying from Beijing in a mass amnesty that also freed several political prisoners. The announcement comes after the stiff logging sentences sharply raised tensions between the once closely-bonded neighbours whose ties have cooled since Myanmar began emerging from decades of military rule in 2011. Their release forms part of a mass prisoner amnesty announced Thursday with authorities ordering the nationwide release of 6,966 detainees, including 210 foreigners, according to a statement on the Ministry of Information website. It said the move hoped to promote "goodwill and is aimed at keeping a friendly relationship between countries". Authorities have freed all of the 155 Chinese nationals handed jail sentences for illegal logging in northern Myanmar near the China border, Beijing’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement. "Myanmar informed China this morning that they will transfer the above-mentioned persons tomorrow," the statement said, adding that there had been "intense communication" between the two nations over the loggers. - Scared of China? - In Yangon crowds of anxious relatives thronged the gates of the city's notorious Insein prison where there were tearful reunions with released loved ones. Five imprisoned journalists were also among 13 political prisoners set free, according to a tally by the activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors dissidents held in Myanmar's jails. The former junta-run nation kept some 2,000 political prisoners locked up in brutal conditions until the current quasi-civilian government began quashing their sentences as part of sporadic amnesties. The Chinese loggers were arrested in January during a crackdown on illegal forestry activities in war-torn northern Kachin state, where both military and rebel forces are accused of profiting from the exploitation of the area's rich natural resources by companies from China. A court official in Kachin earlier this month said 153 loggers were handed life sentences -- usually equivalent to 20 years -- while two males aged under 18 were jailed for 10 years. The decision to jail the loggers sparked outraged editorials in Chinese state media, but their release barely a week later proved controversial on Myanmar websites on Thursday. One report of the release on the website of the local Kumudra news journal was met with hundreds of angry comments accusing the government of being "stupid" and "scared of the Chinese" among the more printable insults. Beijing was Myanmar's closest ally during the later years of military rule, providing a shield from international opprobrium and a lifeline as a trading partner for the junta. - Rocky relations - The relationship saw many of Myanmar's raw materials sucked across its northern border into China, spurring popular anger in the once pariah nation which is set to hold a general election in November. But observers say the scale of interests China accrued during that period caused friction and prodded Myanmar towards reforms called for by the international community. One of Thein Sein's first major acts as president was to halt construction of the huge Chinese-backed Myitsone dam in Kachin after his government replaced outright military rule. Earlier this year, Beijing issued a strong rebuke to its neighbour after a Myanmar plane dropped a bomb in Chinese territory as fighting between government troops and ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels spilled across the border, leaving five China nationals dead. Thein Sein's government has been rewarded for a string of reforms -- including welcoming Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party into parliament -- with most Western sanctions removed. But it has faced growing claims of backtracking as scores of activists have been arrested in recent months amid signs that media freedoms are being tightened after the official lifting of censorship. The five reporters released Thursday were jailed for two years in October for "state defamation" over an account of a protest in Yangon, published in Bi Mon Te Nay journal, that mistakenly suggested Suu Kyi would form an interim government. "I will continue working in journalism in the future as well," journalist Min Wathan told AFP after his release from Insein prison.