Myanmar’s generals have pardoned more than 9,000 prisoners, including 114 foreign nationals, to mark the country’s Independence Day.
Friends and families of prisoners gathered outside the high-security Insein Prison in the commercial capital Yangon as the releases were set to start on Thursday and expected to take place over several days.
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The identities of those slated for release were not released, and there was no indication that any political prisoners would be freed.
Thursday’s announced amnesty, part of an annual release, comes as the military, which seized power in a coup, faces a mounting challenge from an alliance of ethnic armed groups and anti-coup fighters who have captured military and border posts in an offensive that began at the end of October.
The Independence Day celebrations were devoid of their usual pomp, and military chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing was notably absent from the proceedings. In a statement, his administration said 9,652 prisoners would be freed.
“Myanmar’s military generals are up to their same old tricks, releasing large numbers of common criminals and a bunch of foreign prisoners during a major national holiday and trying to dress that up as ‘progress’ on human rights,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera.
The military removed the government of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021, plunging the country into crisis as it brutally suppressed mass protests against its power grab and cracked down any any dissent.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 78, is currently in prison, sentenced to 33 years on an array of politically motivated charges from corruption to flouting COVID-19 restrictions. Her party was dissolved last year after the military imposed tough new party registration laws.
Since the power grab, military leaders have been accused of murdering dozens of prisoners and covering up their deaths as escape attempts. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been monitoring the crackdown, more than 25,730 people have been arrested for opposing the coup, and almost 20,000 are still in detention.
The AAPP reports that at least 4,277 civilians, including pro-democracy activists, have been killed by security forces. In 2022, the generals drew international condemnation after executing four pro-democracy leaders and activists in the country’s first use of the death penalty in decades.
With few political prisoners and other activists likely to be freed, “the impact on the political situation will be minimal”, Robertson said, adding that “no one in the international community is really fooled by these games anymore”.