Myanmar’s generals say they have pardoned more than 2,000 political prisoners to mark Wesak, a major Buddhist holiday.
The military said 2,153 people jailed for “incitement” would be released on “humanitarian grounds”, Myanmar Now reported on Wednesday, citing a statement signed by Military Council Secretary Lieutenant General Aung Lin Dwe.
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The Myanmar military has cracked down on its opponents with lethal force and detained thousands of people since seizing power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a coup in February 2021.
Those charged with incitement, an offence under which it is illegal to encourage dissent against the military, face as many as three years in prison. Those released on Wednesday were told they would be detained again if they committed the same offence again.
Relatives gathered outside Yangon’s Insein Prison, where many political prisoners are held, as the amnesty was announced. As buses left the prison gates they searched for the faces of their loved ones on board, many holding out their hands. Tearful reunions followed.
Wesak Day, which marks Buddha’s birthday, is on Thursday. The military often announces amnesties during major holidays.
It freed more than 3,000 prisoners to mark the traditional New Year last month, but on that occasion did not specifically say that political prisoners would be among those released.
Amnesty International said the release of political prisoners was “long overdue” and said thousands more remained in jail.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Myanmar group which has tracked detentions since the coup, estimates nearly 18,000 people are still being held.
“Anyone imprisoned for peacefully opposing the military coup in Myanmar should never have been jailed in the first place,” Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns Ming Yu Hah said in a statement, adding many would need psychological support to recover from their ordeal. “Peaceful dissent is not a crime, it is a human right.”
The latest amnesty came a day after Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Myanmar and held talks with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, becoming the most senior Chinese official to visit the country since the military seized power more than two years ago.
Chinese state-broadcaster CGTN reported Qin told Min Aung Hlaing that Beijing attached “great importance” to its “friendship” with Myanmar adding that the two men agreed to “further promote comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries”.
The violence triggered by the coup has only escalated in recent months, with an armed resistance taking root in many parts of the country and the military resorting to air attacks that have killed civilians, including children.