Freedom is bittersweet for Htin Lin Oo, a former official in the government of Aung San Suu Kyi and one of the 7,012 prisoners released by Myanmar's ruling junta Wednesday to mark the 75th anniversary the nation's independence from Britain.
"I have no feelings on the issue of being released from prison, but I was ashamed because the people who were imprisoned with me remained in the prison cells," the former National League for Democracy information officer told VOA by telephone after his release from Yangon's Insein prison.
Junta spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun told VOA Burmese that in addition to the pardons, the sentences of some inmates convicted of less than the most serious crimes were being reduced.
"Apart from individuals convicted of charges related to murder, drugs, terrorism, the use of explosives, corruption, unlawful association, violation of disaster-management law and rape, there is a one-sixth reduction of the punishment," said Zaw Min Tun.
Some political prisoners in addition to Htin Lin Oo were released, but the total number remained unclear.
Htin Lin Oo, 56, was arrested at his home early on the day of the February 1, 2021, coup that overthrew the Suu Kyi administration. He was sentenced to three years in prison with labor last February under a new law that prohibits causing fear, spreading false news and agitating crimes against a government employee.
Htin Lin Oo told VOA that the charge against him was based on a revision to the country's legal system that was enacted after his arrest and applied retroactively to his case. He said he faced "a closed trial in the prison that was totally unfair. There was no jury, no right to defend."
Than Myint Aung, another well-known writer and NLD member, was also released from Insein prison. She was arrested on the first day of the coup and sentenced to three years in prison on the same charge as Htin Lin Oo.
Thura Aung Ko, a former general who served as a minister of religious affairs in Suu Kyi's government, was released from Insein prison Tuesday night. The 75-year-old was arrested after the coup and charged with corruption. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison with labor in March last year.
"The journalists, NLD officials and other political prisoners released should never have been imprisoned in the first place," said Shayna Bauchner, an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. She told VOA: "Governments should not mistake the amnesty as a turning point in the junta's crackdown or an opening for negotiations. This isn't a marker of change; it's a revolving door of brutality and abuse."
The NLD won a landslide victory in the 2020 elections but the government it led was overthrown in the 2021 coup. The junta has arrested many party members along with the country's ousted leader, Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 33 years in prison, and President Win Myint, who faces 12 years behind bars.
Neither Suu Kyi nor Win Myint was included in the amnesty.
In the same speech announcing the amnesty, Myanmar's ruling military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, detailed plans for previously promised elections later this year. An election could happen in as little as six months, when the state of emergency imposed by the military is set to expire.
Critics of the junta see the election promise as little more than an attempt to legitimize its power after two years of weakening and imprisoning its opponents. Htin Lin Oo suggested it was intended merely "to appease the people while hiding the true intentions of the military's desire to retain power."
Bauchner dismissed the plan for "so-called elections" as a sham. "No government should provide an ounce of technical assistance or support for this fraudulent exercise," she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared a similar view in August, stating, "We strongly encourage the international community not to endorse the regime's plans for sham elections next year. They can be neither free nor fair."
In a statement on Tuesday marking Myanmar's Independence Day, Blinken also urged the military regime to "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."