YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's president pardoned 56 political prisoners Tuesday, an amnesty apparently timed to highlight the government's reforms ahead of a regional summit as well as important negotiations with a rebel group at home.
President Thein Sein ordered the prisoners' release just ahead of a forum in Brunei to be attended by leaders from across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. At the Associated of Southeast Asian Nations summit, Myanmar is expected to face tough questions about ongoing sectarian violence that has targeted Muslims.
It has become a pattern for prisoner amnesties in Myanmar to coincide with high-profile international meetings as a way of highlighting the nominally civilian government's reforms since taking office after years of absolute military rule.
A member of the government's political prisoner scrutiny committee, Ye Aung, said those released Tuesday included several ethnic minorities.
Among those freed were more than a dozen ethnic Kachin, a move that intentionally coincided with peace talks being held Tuesday in Kachin state between government negotiators and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army, said an official who declined to be named saying he was not authorized to speak to media.
Myanmar for decades has faced rebellions from several ethnic groups seeking autonomy. The Kachin are the only major rebel group that has not reached a cease-fire agreement with Thein Sein's government, which came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of harsh military rule. There have been 15 previous rounds of talks but no resolution is in sight, with the Kachin insisting on a comprehensive political settlement, not just a cease-fire.
Hundreds of prominent political detainees have been freed since Thein Sein, a former general, took office.
Ye Aung, a former prisoner himself, said more than 130 political prisoners are still believed to be jailed.
In July, Thein Sein pledged during an official visit to Britain to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of the year.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company