YANGON – Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others.
As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region.
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 says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention.
Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They 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 Parliament and military involvement in business.
Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It's not clear if all of them were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power.
Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups.
In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little 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.
A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24.
Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.