Release of Chinese loggers a welcome step in right direction by Myanmar

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 2:09am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 3:16am

Myanmar's government has seen the error of its ways and released 155 Chinese sentenced last week to lengthy jail terms for illegal logging. President Thein Sein's order was in keeping with the nature of the matter; it took a political decision to overturn what had been politically motivated charges. Nothing is to be gained by deepening a diplomatic rift with so important a neighbour as China and reason has won through. The decision has to be the beginning of efforts to repair fractured ties.

The Chinese were among 6,966 prisoners released under an amnesty "on humanitarian grounds and in view of national reconciliation". Maintaining friendship with other countries was the reason given for freeing the 210 foreigners among the inmates, which included the loggers. If only such logic had prevailed when they were arrested last January in the state of Kachin, bordering Yunnan province, for violating a ban on timber exports. The operators of the logging operation, not the workers, should have been taken in.

Yet Myanmar's leaders chose to ignore Beijing's diplomatic protest and allow a court to sentence 153 of the loggers to maximum terms of life in jail and two 17-year-olds to 10 years each. The harsh penalties were ostensibly to make a point about illegal logging, but also fed into growing anti-Chinese sentiment. The military government's ushering in of economic and political reforms since 2011 has increasingly led to a turning away from China towards the West. There have been growing protests against infrastructure projects involving China and the economic might of the two million-strong Chinese community. Disputes along the nations' border have deepened discord.

China has been doing its best to improve ties. Last month it returned 205 citizens who had committed immigration offences. The amnesty yesterday and freeing of the loggers reciprocates and offers the chance of opening a new chapter in diplomatic relations. There has to be greater dialogue, improved understanding and a willingness to cooperate.