Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners but many dissidents excluded

More than 23,000 prisoners from jails across the country to be released, but most of them were jailed before the February 1 coup.

Most of the detainees released on Saturday were jailed before the February 1 coup [Stringer/Reuters]

The military rulers of Myanmar have ordered the release of 23,184 prisoners from jails across the country under a New Year amnesty, a Prisons Department spokesman said, though few, if any, democracy activists arrested since a February 1 coup are expected to be among them.

Saturday is the first day of the traditional New Year in Myanmar and the last day of a five-day holiday that is usually celebrated with visits to Buddhist temples and rowdy water throwing and partying in the streets.

Pro-democracy activists called for the cancellation of the festivities this year and instead for people to focus on a campaign to restore democracy after the military’s overthrow of the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

On Saturday, thousands of anti-military protesters took to the streets of Mandalay, the country’s largest city, demanding the restoration of democracy, according to images and reports posted on social media.

Despite a downpour, thousands of people also marched in Shan State to denounce the military.

While the military was freeing thousands of prisoners, it was also seeking 832 people on warrants in connection with the protests.

Aung San Suu Kyi is among 3,141 people arrested in connection with the coup, according to a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group.

“These detainees are mostly from before February 1 but there are also some who were imprisoned after,” Prisons Department spokesman Kyaw Tun Oo told Reuters news agency by telephone.

Asked if any of those being freed might have been detained in connection with the protests against military rule, he said he did not have details of the amnesties.

More warrants issued

Among the people the military is seeking to arrest are several internet celebrities, actors and singers who have spoken out against the coup, wanted on the charge of encouraging dissent in the armed forces.

Two of them, the married couple of film director Christina Kyi and actor Zenn Kyi, were detained at the airport in the main city of Yangon on Saturday as they were trying to leave the country, several media outlets reported.

A spokesman for the military government did not answer calls seeking comment.

Myanmar has been in crisis since the coup, which the military defended with accusations of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, though the election commission dismissed the objections.

The now-dismissed government had held power for the first five years of civilian rule since nearly half a century of army rule ended.

People infuriated by the return of military rule have taken to the streets day after day to demand the restoration of democracy, defying crackdowns by the security forces in which 728 people have been killed, according to the AAPP’s latest figures.

Political leaders, including removed members of parliament, announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) on Friday including Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the anti-coup protests and ethnic minorities.

Protesters march during a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on Saturday [Handout photo/Facebook via AFP]

The NUG says it is the legitimate political authority and has called for international recognition.

The military government has yet to comment on the unity government but has said it will hold a new election within two years and hand power to the winner.

The hugely popular Aung San Suu Kyi faces various charges, including the violation of the Official Secrets Act that could see her jailed for 14 years. Her lawyers dismiss the charges.

Her supporters suspect the military will use the charges to exclude the country’s leader and perhaps her political party from any future election.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters