Myanmar’s junta pardons more than 7,000 prisoners

The Independence Day amnesty includes a former National League for Democracy minister, authors and journalists.

UPDATED AT 4:44 p.m. ET on 01-04-2023

Myanmar’s military rulers ordered the release of 7,012 inmates, including some political prisoners, in an Independence Day amnesty Wednesday.

Detainees held in prisons and police stations across the country had their sentences reduced in accordance with Section 401 of the Penal Code, according to junta news releases received by RFA.

Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule and the junta held grand ceremonies to commemorate the event in Yangon, Mandalay and the capital Naypyidaw.

Lawyers, who wished to remain anonymous, told RFA some political prisoners had already returned to their homes early Wednesday, while families of others were still waiting outside prisons.

Minister of Religious Affairs under the National League for Democracy-led government, Thura Aung Ko, was released from Yangon’s Insein Prison Tuesday night. He had been serving a 12-year sentence for alleged corruption. Police officers and soldiers took him to his home in Yangon, his daughter wrote on her Facebook page.

The National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in 2020 elections but the NLD-led government was overthrown in a February, 2021 coup. The junta has arrested many party members along with the country’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to a total of 33 years in prison, and President Win Myint who faces 12 years behind bars.

Neither Suu Kyi nor Win Myint were included in the amnesty.

Writer Than Myint Aung.jpg
Author Than Myint Aung shortly after her release from Insein Prison, Yangon on Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: RFA

Writers freed

Among those released from Yangon’s Insein prison were authors Than Myint Aung and Htin Lin Oo, a Yangon lawyer, who didn’t want to be named for safety reasons, told RFA.

Than Myint Aung is a well-known fiction writer who also worked for many charities in Myanmar. She had been serving a three-year sentence for alleged incitement. Htin Lin Oo was also sentenced to three years in prison for sedition.

Poet Myo Tay Zar Maung, who had been sentenced to two years for sedition, was freed from Yamethin Prison north of Naypyidaw Wednesday.

Journalists Kyaw Zeya, Ah Hla Lay Thu Zar, Lway M. Phoung, Pyae Phyo Aung, Sai Ko Ko Tun and Ye Tun Oo were also among those set to be freed as was Naing Ngan Lin, the social affairs minister for Yangon region under the NLD-led government.

Thu Zar, who was arrested by the junta in September 2021 and sentenced to two years, described her release as bittersweet.

“No other journalists have been released from Insein prison. Since many journalists are still in prison, I can’t be fully happy with my release,” she told RFA. 

In spite of the Independence Day amnesty, and one on National Day last November, the junta continues to target opposition politicians and real or alleged pro-democracy activists. More than 16,800 have arrested since the coup, according to Thailand-based monitoring group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). Ahead of Wednesday’s amnesty, it said 13,375 political prisoners were still being held.

People protest junta rule in Tanintharyi region’s Dawei township, Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: RFA

Little to celebrate

Wednesday’s events to mark the diamond jubilee anniversary of Independence Day were substantial, and held under tight security. In Yangon, festive markets and fairs were put on in Shwedagon Pagoda, People’s Square and Maha Bandula Park in the city center.

But several residents of Myanmar’s largest city chose to boycott the festivities, telling RFA that national independence means little to a people living under military rule. 

“Both last year and this one, I’ve been overwhelmed by the idea that our country has not yet truly gained independence,” said one Yangon resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

“I will regard and embrace a day as one of independence only when citizens can go about freely and enjoy full democracy in our country. But for now, I only have a very dim memory of the history of Independence Day that I learned in books. To me, it’s just another day.”

An official from the Dagon University Students’ Union told RFA that the heavy security presence at Wednesday’s anniversary events reflected Myanmar’s current state of insecurity and lack of freedom.

“It seems to me that there is no honor in [junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing] celebrating Independence Day in a festive manner after he robbed the country of its power in a coup,” the official said.

“No matter how many celebrations [the military leaders] organize, they know that they themselves are not free. The … many layers of security indicate that the people do not accept them.”

In his New Year’s Day speech, even Min Aung Hlaing admitted that although Myanmar would be celebrating its 75th year of independence on Wednesday, the country had not yet experienced “true independence.”

Family members greet a man released from prison as part of the junta’s general amnesty in Shan state’s city of Lashio, Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: RFA

Few changes expected in 2023

Political analyst Than Soe Naing noted that only the junta and its followers marked Independence Day with festivities, while the rest of the country’s inhabitants chose to mourn the lost of their right to self-determination.

“Only a few followers of the military rulers received titles awarded by the junta and portrayed today as an Independence Day celebration but, due to the military’s aggression throughout the country, the number of refugees from conflict in Myanmar has increased to 1.5 million,” he said.

“In other words, it is a time when the people of Myanmar have lost their right to enjoy independence and are facing all sorts of problems, and it is also a time when they are choosing to fight back.”

Anti-junta activists told RFA they have little hope that the rights violations they experienced during the last two years of military rule — including arrests, killings and the torching of residential homes — will change in 2023. The junta’s plan to hold a general election this year will do little to alter that expectation, they said, because it will be neither be free nor fair.

Ahead of Wednesday’s celebrations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that if the junta wants to see an independent Myanmar, it should hand power back to the country’s people.

“Today, Burma’s military regime stands in the way of democratic progress and the will of the people,” he said. “The military regime must end its violence, release those unjustly detained, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and recognize the desire of the people for a genuine and inclusive democracy in Burma.”

Translated by Myo Min Aung and Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Mike Firn and Joshua Lipes.

This story has been updated to include reactions to the junta’s general amnesty, expectations for Myanmar in 2023, and a statement by the U.S. Secretary of State.

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