452 prisoners released in Myanmar Thursday
U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Myanmar in a few days
Country formerly known as Burma has been undergoing democratic reforms
Buddhist-Muslim violence is causing tension in western Myanmar
Hundreds of prisoners in Myanmar have been granted their freedom, according to the state-run newspaper, just days before President Barack Obama is scheduled to become the first sitting U.S. head of state to visit the fledgling democracy.
Myanmar’s President Thein Sein bestowed amnesty Thursday on 452 prisoners, both Myanmar citizens and foreigners, with plans to extradite the foreigners, The New Light of Myanmar reported.
The paper said Sein mandated the releases, in accord with the nation’s constitution and criminal code, “on humanitarian grounds, for turning them into citizens who do their bits in nation-building tasks, realizing sympathy and good will of the state and for prolonging friendship with neighboring countries.”
Under Sein, the Myanmar government has released hundreds of political prisoners in the past year, part of a series of reforms that has followed decades of repressive military rule. Western governments have responded to the efforts by starting to ease sanctions put in place to pressure the military regime in the country formerly known as Burma.
Obama’s visit, part of a four-day Asia trip from November 17-20, follows the United States’ “seeing… signs of progress,” and taking “specific steps to recognize the government’s efforts and encourage further reform” in the Southeast Asian nation, according to a White House blog post last week from Special Assistant to the President Samantha Power.
Topics Obama and Sein will probably discuss include prisoners of conscience, political reforms, the rule of law, and peace and reconciliation, Power wrote.
Obama also plans on meeting with Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi while in Myanmar, according to the White House news release.
Suu Kyi, who spent the better part of two decades under house arrest for advocating for democracy in Myanmar, was elected to the Myanmar parliament this year, and she traveled to Washington earlier this year to accept the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.
Obama’s arrival comes after months of turmoil in the western state of Rakhine, where tensions between the majority Buddhist community and the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic Muslim group, boiled over into clashes that have killed scores of people and left tens of thousands of others living in makeshift camps.
As of Monday, citing government figures, the United Nations said at least 89 people have been killed in violence in Rakhine in recent weeks and 110,000 people are now displaced. The deaths come on top of dozens of others during clashes in May and June.
CNN’s Kocha Olarn and Jethro Mullen contributed to this report