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Myanmar protesters freed as military says 5,600 prisoners will be released

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Myanmar’s military has announced plans to release more than 5,000 prisoners, days after the junta chief was blocked from attending an upcoming regional summit over his failure to commit to de-escalating the country’s crisis.

A total of 5,600 people arrested or subject to arrest warrants for taking part in anti-coup protests since the military seized power in February would be released, it was announced on state TV on Monday.

Late into the evening the first of the prisoners were released. It was not immediately clear how long it would take for all those scheduled for release to be freed.

More than 7,300 political prisoners – including medics, elected politicians, journalists and protesters – are being held, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Burma, an advocacy group that tracks the arrests.

Released prisoners greet with their friends and family members outside the Insein prison in Yangon.
Released prisoners greet with their friends and family members outside the Insein prison in Yangon. Photograph: EPA

In cases where the military’s targets cannot be found, security forces have instead abducted their relatives, including children, the UN special rapporteur for the country, Tom Andrews, said last month.

Related: South-east Asian states to invite non-political figure in Myanmar to summit

Many rushed immediately to find out if their relatives or friends would be released following the announcement. A woman from Yangon, who spoke anonymously, was among those who went to the prison to search for information about her sister, a journalist detained in August.

The family had not been able to visit her sister since the arrest, she said. “We received a letter that says she is healthy and OK. We didn’t hear any other news.” The letter had asked for the family to send her a newspaper to read; they tried to pass one to prison staff, but are unsure if she received it.

“We hope for her freedom. But we can’t expect too much,” she added.

Another woman whose two younger brothers were arrested separately, in May and July, said she too was trying to find out if they would be released. Both were in their 20s, she said. “There is no reason to thank [the military]. We even want to curse them. Many of my friends and two brothers are arrested, so there is no reason to thank them.”

People wait for the release of their family member from Insein prison in Yangon.
People wait for the release of their family member from Insein prison in Yangon. Photograph: EPA

At least 1,178 have been killed in the military’s deadly crackdowns, according to AAPP Burma, including 131 people who were killed in detention. There have been widespread reports of torture in prisons.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has led international efforts to negotiate, agreed a five-point plan with the military to de-escalate the crisis in April. This included an agreement that Asean would send an envoy, Brunei’s second foreign minister, Erywan Yusof, to the country to mediate. However, he cancelled his trip this week after the military announced he would not be permitted to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.

The bloc decided to exclude the junta chief, Min Aung Hlaing, from its upcoming summit, which will be attended by Joe Biden, due to the lack of progress. The decision was a rare rebuke from Asean, which maintains a non-interference policy, and is a major blow to the junta’s hopes of gaining greater legitimacy internationally.

Minn Khant Kyaw Linn, a 23-year-old student activist whose friends were killed during the spring revolution protests this year, said the international community should not be fooled into believing the military’s pledges. “This army also tortured and arrested innocent people. We demand the international community to take action on this army,” he said.

Among those being held is the American journalist Danny Fenster, who has been in detention since his arrest on 24 May.

AAPP said in a statement that the prisoner release was intended as “a form of distraction for the foreign governments” and that it was no coincidence that the announcement came days after Asean’s decision to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from its gathering.

“The junta will continue to refuse to be transparent about the individual persons released, and who remains detained. Released prisoners from 18 October may include some political prisoners but the intention is not to relax repression,” AAPP said.

“If the junta wanted to make concessions, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint and all political prisoners would be released unconditionally, and the democratically elected leaders reinstalled.”

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