Authorities in Myanmar have re-arrested at least 110 political prisoners freed earlier this week—some within hours of their release—suggesting that the amnesty was only a bid by the junta to appease the international community amid criticism of its rule, observers said Thursday.
Nearly nine months after the military’s Feb. 1 coup, security forces have killed 1,183 civilians and arrested at least 7,031, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP)—mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.
The junta says it unseated the National League for Democracy government because, they claimed, the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence of its claims and public unrest is at an all-time high.
On Monday, the junta released 1,316 prisoners from various facilities throughout the country as well as 4,320 detainees who faced ongoing cases for anti-junta activities, including well-known politicians, celebrities, film actors and journalists.
However, the release was ordered under Section 401 sub-section (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that if a detainee commits another offense after their release, they will be made to serve the remainder of punishment as well as any sentence related to the new crime.
On Thursday, the AAPP said in a statement it had documented the re-arrest of at least 110 political prisoners over the past three days, noting that its list contained only the names of people it had verified and that the number was likely much higher.
RFA’s Myanmar Service was not immediately able to confirm the total number of people re-arrested, but determined that they included detainees from Yangon, Mandalay, Meiktila and Monywa.
Family members told RFA on Thursday that some of their loved ones were re-arrested “right at the entrance of the prison,” while others were taken back within hours of returning home. The detainees are now being held in police custody under Myanmar’s anti-terrorism law, sources said.
Lay Lay Naing, an 84-year-old woman who was arrested on May 21 and sentenced to three years in prison under Section 505 (a) of the criminal code for comments that spread “false news [or] agitates directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee,” and 11 others were re-arrested at the entrance to Meiktila Prison shortly after they were released in a group of 38 people on Tuesday.
“We are devastated—our mother is 84 and her health is deteriorating,” said one of her relatives, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We went to meet her at the prison, hoping that the whole family would be reunited and happy … We saw her from a distance, and she was taken away. We were not allowed to say anything. When we asked to see the prison officer, he would not see us.”
Four of the 11 detainees who were re-arrested were again released the next day, but seven remain in custody, the family member said.
Similarly, 60 detainees from Mandalay’s Pyin Oo Lwin township were released from Ohbo Prison on Tuesday, but three men and a woman from the group were re-arrested within hours by police.
Zaw Myo Htet, who was among those released from Ohbo Prison, confirmed the four were re-arrested under anti-terrorism laws.
“We were arrested on May 11 and charged under Section 505 (a), but we were released on Oct. 19 because the charges were revoked,” he said.
“Later, our lawyer called us and said one woman and two guys had been arrested again [in addition to a fourth man] … The lawyer said they were in custody for ‘violence.’ Actually, they were not involved in any violence as they claim.”
The four had been among a group arrested during a May 11 anti-junta protest in Pyin Oo Lwin, Zaw Myo Htet said, adding that some of those released under the amnesty are still being sought by police.
Possible power struggle
Thet Paing Htwe was released from Yangon’s Insein Prison on Tuesday after also being charged under Section 505 (a), but a family member told RFA he was only home for 45 minutes before he was re-arrested.
“Now he is missing—he isn’t at the Insein Police Station, and I don’t know where to look for him, said the relative, who declined to be named.
“Only when the prison reopens on Oct. 22 will we be able to go there to find out. They said they were taking him back because he had been wrongly released. He was charged only with 505 (a).”
Thet Paing Htwe’s family members said he was arrested in Thingangyun township in May during anti-junta protests, as was his brother.
Khant Zin Ko, a member of the Monywa University Students’ Union, was similarly arrested after his release from Myoma Prison Camp No. 1.
A relative, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said his re-arrest suggests there is a power struggle at play between prison officials and the military.
“The higher authorities are saying one thing and those on the ground are doing what they want,” they said.
Attempts by RFA to reach Deputy Minister of Information Zaw Min Tun by phone went unanswered Thursday, although earlier in the week he said that he was unaware of the details pertaining to re-arrests.
Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country, triggering fierce battles with local PDF militias and some of the dozens of ethnic armies that control large swathes of territory along Myanmar’s periphery. On Sept. 7, Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets.
The junta has also faced pressure to end its repressive rule from the international community, including sanctions by Western governments and condemnation from Myanmar’s fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and the United Nations human rights agency.
The AAPP said in its statement Thursday that the military was reluctant to release political prisoners and only did so in a bid to alleviate pressure at home and abroad. The group slammed the move, saying that re-arresting people only hours after their release subjects them and their families to undue emotional stress.
Reports of the re-arrests came on the same day that New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement that called the amnesty, and an earlier one in late June that saw 372 detainees freed from detention, according to the AAPP, “limited in scope” and said they “do not reflect a broader change in the military’s respect for human rights.”
The group called for governments to increase pressure on the junta to “release all political prisoners, end abuses against protesters and others, and commit to promptly restore democratic rule.”
Linda Lakhdhir, the group’s Asia legal adviser, said the release should not distract from the junta’s abusive rule and noted that some of those freed had already been re-arrested.
“The junta should release all those unjustly held since the coup, including high-profile political figures, and end all arbitrary arrests,” she said.
Human Rights Watch urged concerned governments to impose tougher economic measures against the military to cut off its sources of foreign revenue and called on the United Nations Security Council to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar.
“Governments should not mistake these releases as a sign that the junta is taking a new approach,” Lakhdhir said. “Instead, the releases appear to be a cynical gesture to blunt growing international pressure to sanction the junta and its generals.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.