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Myanmar frees prisoners ahead of regional summit

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.

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At the Association 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.

In July, Thein Sein pledged during an official visit to Britain to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of the year.

The release of political detainees has been a concern of the United States and other Western nations who are trying to promote Myanmar’s transition to full democracy. However, new prisoners continue to be detained for political offenses.

A member of the government’s political prisoner scrutiny committee, Ye Aung, said the released included members of several ethnic minorities.

Hundreds of prominent political detainees have been freed since Thein Sein took office. According to Ye Aung, himself a former prisoner, more than 130 political prisoners are still believed to be jailed.

Before Tuesday’s releases, his committee had identified 189 political prisoners still incarcerated.

Myanmar has routinely denied the existence of political prisoners, saying all people sentenced to jail have been convicted legitimately of breaking the nation’s laws.

Nevertheless, hundreds of prominent political detainees have been freed since the former general took office two years ago after a long-ruling army junta was dissolved.

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