YANGON, Myanmar – More than 150 Chinese workers sentenced to life in prison for illegal logging were freed in Myanmar on Thursday under a massive presidential pardon that saw nearly 7,000 prisoners released.
Others included former military intelligence officials purged by their army colleagues more than a decade ago.
An Information Ministry statement said 6,966 prisoners, including 210 foreigners, will be freed across the country "on humanitarian grounds and in view of national reconciliation."
It was not clear if pro-democracy activists were among them, and the vast majority were common criminals. No official lists of pardoned prisoners are issued, so the names usually come from the prisoners themselves or their families.
The pardons issued by President Thein Sein were timed to coincide with a Buddhist religious holiday and come ahead of a November general election. The polls have triggered criticism that the government is backsliding on political reforms it promised upon taking power in 2011, after almost five decades of repressive military rule. Past governments have released political prisoners as a way of assuaging criticism from abroad.
The released included 155 Chinese loggers, most of whom received life sentences earlier this month in connection with illegal logging in northern Myanmar. Their jail terms drew much ire in China, which is a top ally of Myanmar. The punishment seemed largely to serve as a warning not to make business deals with Myanmar ethnic rebel groups, as the Chinese logging company was believed to have done.
China's Foreign Ministry said Myanmar authorities had notified Chinese official that the 155 would be handed over to their custody on Friday.
Despite close ties, there are significant tensions between China and Myanmar. Chinese economic penetration is big and highly visible in northern Myanmar, and some large infrastructure and mining projects have drawn charges of being insensitive to the environment and local concerns.
China is also seen as providing a safe haven for some Myanmar ethnic rebel groups, with whom Myanmar's government wants to reach cease-fire agreements.
Those pardoned included eight former senior military intelligence officers, who since 2004 have been serving jail terms of 80 years or more, according to their families. One of them is former Brig. Gen. Than Tun, who served as a liaison officer between the former military government and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who was then under house arrest.
Although the major charges against the officers involved corruption, it was their ties to former intelligence chief and then-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt that led to their jailing. Khin Nyunt led the losing faction in a power struggle within the then-ruling junta. He was released under an earlier pardon.