Myanmar’s military freed thousands of people arrested for protesting its February coup under strict conditions on Monday, prompting observers to dismiss the move as a bid to appease the international community at a time when the junta is facing both global and domestic pressure to step down.
The government announced the release of 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. The military also revoked charges against 34 artists and celebrities who are in hiding.
Some of the more recognizable names of those freed included Monywa Aung Shin from the information team of the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) party, La Raw from the Kachin Wave News Agency, Saing Nu Pan from 74-Media, Thin Thin Aung and James Aung Khant from Mizzima News, and Kyaw Myint from Modern Image Media.
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.
It marked the second announced by the junta following a June 30 general amnesty that saw 200 detainees freed from detention across the country.
On Monday evening, crowds gathered around the entrance to Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, waving as a bus packed with freed detainees exited the facility.
A 31-year-old woman named Ngu Wah Khine, who last month was sentenced to three years in the prison for donating money to the anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia, told RFA’s Myanmar Service she and her fellow detainees only learned they would be released “moments before” wardens had them line up to leave.
“Three or four days ago, we heard about the possible release but no one inside the prison took it as certain,” she said.
“We saw a news announcement about the release around 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m., but we still couldn’t be sure and assumed the information might be wrong.”
NLD leaders absent
Junta Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun told RFA that the release was aimed at giving those in the country’s prisons “a chance to take part in nation-building work,” but he acknowledged that they had been released “with certain restrictions.”
“The fact is that they were involved [in protests against the coup],” he said. “But for now, as they are our citizens, we made the decision to enable them to participate in nation building.”
Zaw Min Tun claimed that the release was not due to internal or external pressure and noted that some people had been “similarly freed when investigations of their cases had concluded.”
Notably absent from the list of freed prisoners were former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and former President Win Myint of the NLD, both of whom were placed under arrest when the military orchestrated a power grab on Feb. 1.
The pair face the charge of “defamation of the state” under Article 505 (b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code related to two statements issued by the NLD Central Executive Committee on Feb. 7 and 13 that prosecutors say were meant to disrupt public order and instigate against the state.
The Central Executive Committee’s Feb. 7 statement urged foreign governments, diplomatic missions, United Nations agencies, and international organizations not to recognize the junta and claimed the military had violated Myanmar’s 2008 constitution by staging a coup against elected government leaders.
The Feb. 13 statement, which was released while the junta was circulating a restrictive bill on cyber security, claimed that all regulations, rules, and laws enacted by the military government were illegal.
Zaw Min Tun told RFA Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi still face trial and their release would “depend on the outcome of their cases.”
Myanmar’s military overthrew the democratically elected NLD government on Feb. 1, claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud.
The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,181 people and arresting 7,355 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. More than 3,000 remain behind bars in various jails after Monday’s amnesty.
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 (NUG) 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.
Aung Kyi Nyunt, a leading NLD official, told RFA that the junta should release all those involved in anti-coup protest without condition—including the country’s deposed leaders—if it is sincere about “nation-building.”
“The international community and ASEAN have long called for their unconditional release,” he said.
“If [the junta is] being sincere, all those detained for their involvement in politics and protests must be released unconditionally. Even then, it will be beneficial only if the country’s stakeholders can all participate freely in politics. If they are doing this now with the aim of prolonging their rule and their system, the political problem will never be solved completely.”
Thura Aung, the leader of an anti-junta boycott movement in Mandalay, called the release “a face-saving act for the international arena and ASEAN.”
“It’s just lip-service—they are only freeing 10 out of every 100, and we can’t trust them,” he said.
“Our leaders weren’t released and only a handful of those they arrested during the crackdown were freed. They hit people with cars, shot people and made arrests using brutal force. Though they are doing this to save face, I don’t believe they will succeed.”
Tun Kyi, a spokesman for the Ex-Political Prisoner Society, told RFA that detainees who are freed but can be rearrested at any time are merely “political hostages.”
“Since the release was made under Section 401 Article 1 of the Criminal Procedure Code, these people were not released through good will,” he said.
“These prisoners have been held as political hostages and were freed due to international pressure. We have seen this kind of action many times from military dictatorships in the past.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.