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Myanmar Military’s Release of Prisoners Only to Ease International Pressure, Experts Say

Family members and friends wait to welcome released prisoners outside the Insein Prison, Oct. 19, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar.
Family members and friends wait to welcome released prisoners outside the Insein Prison, Oct. 19, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar.

The Myanmar military’s recent decision to release thousands of prisoners is due to international pressure, and not a real sign of change, human rights activists say.

On Monday, the military government, officially the country’s State Administration Council, pardoned 1,316 people and dropped charges against 4,320 others that had participated in protests against the junta. The prisoners had been held after months of demonstrations and strikes to protest the February 1 coup in which the military seized power.

But according to activists, the lenience does not reflect a change in the military’s approach.

Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based NGO Tampadipa Institute, told VOA that releasing prisoners is part of the military’s strategy.

“Since the coup, they’ve done this before,” he said. “It’s quite a number, 5,000 plus – the impression we get, it’s good, and some people are encouraged, but a general impression, it’s a re-run, a ruse, they have used many, many years, from pressure from abroad, such as a safety valve.

“What can they gain? A lot of blood has been spilt, and a lot of water has been passed beneath the bridge. It’s not a sign that they’ve become liberal. It’s not a sign of change, they want to ease the pressure,” he said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the decision does “not reflect a broader change in the military’s respect for human rights.”

The organization noted that the military claimed to have released 2,000 prisoners in June, but only 372 releases were confirmed in a report from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a monitoring human rights group based in Thailand.

Local media also reported this week that at least 110 of Monday’s released prisoners were re-arrested for other offenses.

As for those who remain free, experts say they are not guaranteed their freedom long-term.

Khin Zaw Win, who has been a notable political activist in Myanmar for decades, was jailed for 11 years under previous military control from 1994 to 2005 for “seditious writings.”

“I was released in 2005, and we didn’t have to sign anything,” he said, but added that prisoners are more vulnerable today. “That’s really awkward. Now you can get arrested, released, re-arrested,” he said.

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein believes those released could still be punished.

“The deferred charges - sentences would be added in case they violate the offenses again,” he told VOA, adding that the military’s decision to release the prisoners is likely because the ASEAN Summit is drawing closer.

“It could be because of international pressure, partly ASEAN. The number of political prisoners is quite high and now the military can decrease the headcounts,” he said.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a 10-member union and regional political group promoting economic and security cooperation. The bloc holds a biannual virtual summit for three days beginning October 26.

In April a high-level emergency summit was held among ASEAN leaders to discuss Myanmar in the aftermath of the coup. Participants agreed on a five-point plan that called for an immediate end to violence and a visit by ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar to visit all parties concerned.

But little progress has been made six months later. Erywan Yusof, ASEAN’s special envoy to Myanmar, called for a four-month cease-fire that he said was accepted but that was later denied by the military, Irrawaddy reports.

An additional request was made by the special envoy to meet with the detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but that was also rejected. Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun told Radio Free Asia it was “nothing unusual” for this request to be denied given Aung San Suu Kyi’s mounting criminal charges.

With relationships strained, and the virtual summit due to take place next week, ASEAN has decided to exclude Myanmar military leader General Min Aung Hlaing from the event, in a major rebuke to the armed forces. Instead, the committee will invite a nonpolitical representative for Myanmar.

Aung Thu Nyein said the rejection means the military is facing "humiliation" over the matter, but there will be more opportunities for them to respond.

“I believe the military will not leave ASEAN, they will find a way through the crack of ASEAN leadership, possibly approaching Thailand, Vietnam, etc. For the ASEAN side, the summit is just one event, but I think they may be considering the follow-up of thousands of ASEAN official meetings during the coming year,” he said.

Myanmar Friday rejected the ASEAN decision to invite only a nonpolitical figure to the meeting.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a press release that Myanmar “will not be in a position to accept any outcome of the discussions and decisions which are ultra vires and contrary to the provisions, objectives and cherished principles of the ASEAN Charter.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, gained independence in 1948 from Britain, but most of its modern history has been governed under military rule.

In February, the military removed the democratically elected government alleging electoral fraud during last November’s general elections. The deposed government was led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has since been detained and is facing a slew of criminal charges.

The coup triggered a wave of protests and strikes against the military government. The armed forces have violently cracked down on the dissidents, leaving over 1,000 dead and thousands more still detained or wanted for arrest, according to the AAPP.

The military government disputes the numbers.

Myanmar’s ousted politicians and ethnic minority leaders have formed an opposition coalition known as the National Unity Government (NUG), which is protected by various people’s defense groups.

They insist they are the legitimate administration in Myanmar and have called for a “defensive war” to fight back against the country’s national military.