Myanmar junta releases prisoners in mass amnesty move

The mass amnesty granted to 5,774 political prisoners including four prominent foreigners is aimed at improving the junta’s relationship with Western countries, according to observers

November 23, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Myanmar mass amnesty
Political prisoners leaving Pyay Prison in Myanmar on November 17, 2022. (Photo: RFA)

On November 17, the Myanmar junta announced the release of 5,774 prisoners on “humanitarian grounds” ahead of the country’s National Day. The list includes four prominent foreigners, former British ambassador Vicky Bowman, Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota, Burmese-American Kyaw Htay Oo, and Australian economist Sean Turnell.

A number of people gathered outside the notorious Insein prison in Yangon following the announcement of the mass amnesty. Reuters reported that eyewitnesses saw a bus leaving the prison with some of those named in the amnesty list. 

All of the foreigners are to be deported after their release, according to the junta spokesperson. The move is aimed at improving the junta’s relations with Western countries, which have been reluctant to publicly accept the legitimacy of the military regime after it toppled the civilian government in February 2021.

“Yet again, political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips,” the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said, adding that it was an apparent move to ease the “political pressure.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted that while the amnesty notice is a “big relief to their families,” it is also “a reminder that thousands of other citizens are being held in horrific conditions without much international support.”

According to AAPP, which has been documenting rights violations by the junta, the total number of people arrested in the anti-coup agitation is estimated to be 16,316, of whom 12,923 are still in detention

Anti-coup crackdown

Political turmoil continues in Myanmar since the military coup last year. The military rule is being strongly resisted by the civil disobedience movement spearheaded by local activists, unionists, workers and students. In response to the popular resistance, the military crackdown has been intense, structural, and overt. 

According to estimates by AAPP, a total of 2,525 civilians have been killed in the mass movement so far. The military regime has also taken in a large number of political prisoners to curb the uprising. Between February 2021 to June 2022, at least 890 people were convicted and sentenced. As many as 52 individuals were sentenced to death, HRW noted

“The total number of political prisoners detained was as many as throughout the country’s past five decades of military rule that ended in 2010,” U Aung Myo Kyaw, spokesperson of AAPP claimed.

Rights groups like AAPP have reported that at least 103 prisoners have died in custody. There have also been multiple reports of prisoners being severely beaten inside the Insein jail. On June 14, Irrawaddy reported that prison authorities were involved in beating up 10 prisoners. In May, more than 60 political prisoners in the Hpan-an prison were brutally beaten for singing the anti-regime song (Tway Thit Sar).

Some prisoners went on hunger strike against the junta’s decision to execute four dissidents, including two prominent activists, on June 8. The decision to execute the activists amounted to “war crimes,” as per the UN, which called the death sentences “a vile attempt at instilling fear amongst the people of Myanmar.”

Crimes against women

On November 10, AAPP along with the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) made a joint call for survivors of sexual violence by junta forces to come forward and report violations to civil society organizations and provide evidence for future prosecutions.

At least 12 civilian have been killed and raped, before or after their death, by the junta forces, claimed AAPP.

“We want the coup leaders and rights violators to know that in the future – in a free and federal Burma – they will be held to account for their crimes,” AAPP secretary U Tate Naing said, adding that people of Myanmar deserve “justice and dignity” after suffering such human rights violations.