The Myanmar junta has announced that it has pardoned and released more than 23,000 prisoners on the occasion of the Thingyan New Year holiday.
The gesture was announced by state broadcaster MRTV, which added that Major General Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned a total of 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from the country in the coming days.
Other prisoners have had their sentences reduced. It is not yet clear whether the decision applied to any of the pro-democracy activists detained after the military took power in February.
The move comes amid continued daily protests against the military’s overthrow of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the use of lethal force by the state to quell protesters.
According to the Association for the Assistance to Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since taking office. The group also says that some 3,141 people, including Suu Kyi herself, are currently in detention.
Who are the political prisoners released in Myanmar?
Detainees released on Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison included at least three political prisoners who were imprisoned for the first time in 2019, according to witnesses and local press.
All three are members of the Peacock Generation entertainment company, who were arrested during that year’s New Year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Myanmar’s parliament, as well as military involvement in business.
His acting style is known as Thangyat, a traditional mix of poetry, comedy and music with sharp satirical overtones. Several members of the company were convicted under a law that prohibits the circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize the military. The actors may have drawn the particular ire of the military because they performed in military uniforms.
Several members of the Peacock Generation were also convicted of defamation online for live streaming their performances. It is not yet known if all of the imprisoned company members have been released.
Another released prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper businessman sentenced in 2019 to 13 years in a Myanmar prison for drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Dunkley co-founded The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was later forced to resign. He became known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states, but was also sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early release of prisoners is common during major Myanmar holidays. This is the second round of releases the military junta has announced since taking power, having previously released more than 23,000 convicts on February 12 to mark Union Day.
In March, more than 600 people who had been jailed for demonstrating against the February coup were released from Insein prison, in a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared to be aimed at placating the pro-democracy movement.
Those released were mostly young people who had been caught up in waves of street demonstrations, while those considered leaders remained behind bars.
Neither the military government nor its opponents have shown any signs of backing down in their struggle for power. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions, with little observable effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start anew on the road to restoring democracy, or at least end the violent repression of its people.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism