Myanmar”s junta has announced it has pardoned and released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional Thingyan New Year holiday.
The gesture was announced by the state broadcaster MRTV, which added that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned a grand total of 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from the country in the coming days.
Other prisoners have had their sentences reduced. It is not yet clear whether decision applied to any of the the pro-democracy activists detained in the wake of the military’s seizure of power in February.
The move comes amid ongoing daily protests against the military’s ousting of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the state’s use of deadly force to quell the demonstrators.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group also says that some 3,141 people, including Suu Kyi herself, are currently in detention.
Who are the political prisoners freed in Myanmar?
The detainees released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison included at least three political prisoners who were first jailed in 2019, according to witnesses and the local press.
The three are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe, who were arrested during that year’s New Year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Myanmar’s parliament as well as military involvement in business.
Their acting style is known as Thangyat, a traditional blend of poetry, comedy and music with sharp satirical undertones. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning the circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the particular ire of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several Peacock Generation members were also convicted of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It is not yet known if all the imprisoned members of the troupe were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years in a Myanmar prison for drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, reported The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was later forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states, but was also sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays in Myanmar. This is the second round of releases the military junta has announced since taking power, having previously released more than 23,000 convicts on February 12 to mark Union Day.
In March, more than 600 people who had been imprisoned for demonstrating against the February coup were released from Insein Prison, in a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared to be aimed at placating the pro-democracy movement.
Those freed were mostly young people who had been caught in waves of street demonstrations, while the people considered the ringleaders remained behind bars.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it have shown any sign of backing off from their struggle for power. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions, to little observable effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression of its people.