Myanmar’s military has started releasing more than 1,600 prisoners to mark the Southeast Asian nation’s traditional New Year festivities, but no political detainees were freed despite the country’s ruling general promising to restore peace this year.
Among those imprisoned by the military are opposition party leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is held in the capital Naypyidaw, and her Australian economic policy adviser, Sean Turnell, who is in the notorious Insein Prison facility on the outskirts of Yangon.
Myanmar has been under military rule since February of last year, when the army ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
At least 13,282 people have been arrested and 1,756 killed by the military since it launched its coup in February 2021, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), an activist group.
The military takeover has been met with massive resistance, which has since turned into what some United Nations experts have characterised as civil war.
“As part of the celebration of Myanmar’s New Year, to bring joy for the people and address humanitarian concerns,” Lieutenant General Aung Lin Dwe, a state secretary of the military government, said that “1,619 prisoners, including 42 detained foreigners, will be released under the amnesty”.
The foreign prisoners will be deported from Myanmar after their release, he wrote in a statement.
Myanmar Prisons Department Spokesman Khin Shwe said that those released were mostly drug offenders and petty criminals.
This New Year’s amnesty was a fraction of the one a year ago, when 23,000 people were freed from jails.
Political detainees ‘held as hostages’
Relatives of hundreds of prisoners gathered outside Yangon’s Insein Prison on Sunday after the announcement was made, but many did not know if their relatives or loved ones would be released, according to a local reporter.
The mother of a 22-year-old pro-democracy protester arrested eight months ago said she was waiting after her son wrote to her and said he might be released in the amnesty.
Another mother, whose police officer son was arrested for participating in the civil disobedience movement against the military, said she had waited outside the prison several times during previous amnesty periods.
“I have a feeling he will be freed today,” she said.
It was unclear whether the amnesty would include any of the jailed members of the civilian government overthrown in the coup.
Tun Kyi, a senior member of the Former Political Prisoners Society, said that political detainees are being held as hostages by coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
It was not surprising if political prisoners were not released, because the general sees people who oppose his government as criminals and intends to crush them, Tun Kyi said.
“He knows the political prisoners will oppose him again if they were released,” he said.
This year’s holiday celebrations in Myanmar, which are carried out over several days, were muted as opponents of military rule called for a boycott of government-supported activities.
Myanmar’s military has been carrying out full-scale offensives against militias and ethnic rebel groups in the countryside as well as urban guerrillas active in the cities.
Opponents of the military have established their own parallel shadow government. Its acting president said in his New Year speech that citizen militias and allied armed forces of ethnic minorities now control most of the country’s rural areas.
“I’m happy to report to you on this auspicious Myanmar New Year that our resistance forces and ethnic armed forces are now controlling much of the country, particularly rural areas, as well as positions around several major cities,” Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the self-styled National Unity Government, said Saturday.
It is impossible to confirm claims of control over territory by either side in the conflict in Myanmar.
However, repeated major offensives by the military indicate there are security problems in many areas of the country.