YANGON: Myanmar on Thursday (Jul 30) freed 155 Chinese nationals, who were last week given long jail terms for illegal logging, as a “goodwill” gesture, authorities said, following intense lobbying from China.
The announcement comes after the 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.
The release forms part of a mass prisoner amnesty announced on Thursday with authorities ordering the nationwide release of 6,966 “well disciplined” 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”.
The release included all of the 155 Chinese nationals handed jail sentences for illegal logging in northern Myanmar near their shared 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?
The Chinese loggers were arrested in January during a crackdown on illegal forestry activities in northern Kachin state, where a bloody civil war has raged since 2011 and 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 was proving 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.
The group of loggers was freed mid-morning Thursday from Myitkyina prison, according to witness Kyaw Kyaw Oo, a representative from a political prisoner activist group who was waiting outside the jail to watch the release. “The Chinese prisoners were taken away in five vehicles by immigration and prison officials,” he told AFP.
It was not immediately clear if any political prisoners were among those freed in the release, the latest in a series of amnesties under the reformist government that have seen sentences quashed for hundreds of dissidents.
Thein Sein’s government, which took power in 2011, has been rewarded for a string of reforms – including prisoner amnesties and welcoming Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party into parliament – with most Western sanctions removed.
But his government 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 Myanmar leader has also been accused of timing amnesties for political benefit, while local people fret that thousands of criminals are released alongside dissidents.
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 military government.
The relationship saw many of Myanmar’s raw materials sucked across its northern border into China, spurring popular anger in the former junta-ruled country which is set to hold a general election in November.
But observers say the scale of interests China accrued during that period – including dams and mines and a gas pipeline aimed at developing its southern Yunnan province – 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 quasi-civilian 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.
But in June Beijing hosted Suu Kyi in a sign that key players in both nations are keen on cementing future relations.