In an attempt to burnish its image, Myanmar’s military government yesterday granted amnesty to more than 3,000 prisoners, including nearly 100 foreigners, to mark the Thingyan New Year holiday.
According to The Associated Press, which cited a report on the state-run MRTV television, the military-backed State Administration Council, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, had pardoned 3,113 prisoners, including 98 foreigners who will now be deported.
Such prisoner releases are common on important national and Buddhist holidays, as they are in Southeast Asia’s other Theravada Buddhist nations. Since the February 2021 coup, the military government has announced several such amnesties, as did the various military councils that ruled the country for five decades to 2011.
It was not immediately clear if those released included any of the thousands arrested for resisting the military’s February 2021 coup d’état, which has plunged the country into a nationwide struggle.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is keeping a running count of those killed and detained by the junta, more than 21,000 people have been arrested since the coup; as of April 12, 17,460 of them are believed to be in custody.
Even in cases that do involve those who the Soviets called “politicals” – around 200 political prisoners were among the 7,000-odd people released to mark Myanmar’s Independence Day in January – those released effectively remain political hostages of the junta whose only real recourse is to join the large exodus of people seeking to leave Myanmar. Indeed, under the country’s laws, prison sentences are not expunged but can be reactivated the moment the former prisoner commits another “offense.”
The Associated Press cited a senior member of the Former Political Prisoners Society, the mere existence of which speaks to the repressions that Myanmar has experienced for most of living memory, as saying that such amnesties were intended to portray the military government as merciful, beneficent, and thus politically legitimate.
The intended audience of such gestures is thus overwhelmingly domestic, though this is perhaps just as well, given the military junta’s increasingly black reputation in the world beyond Myanmar’s borders. The amnesty follows last week’s devastating series of air strikes by the Myanmar air force on a ceremony held by opponents of the military outside a village in Kanbalu township, in Sagaing Region in the country’s northwest. The death toll from the attack, first estimated at around 50, has now risen to more than 170, including 40 children, making it the deadliest air attack that the junta has carried out since it seized power in February 2021.
As a coalition of 546 civil society groups noted today in an open letter to the members of the United Nations Security Council, the attack on Kanbalu came a day after similar air attacks in Falam township in Chin State, which killed nine civilians and destroyed homes and schools.
The statement went on to call for the Council to impose a range of measures to bring the junta to heel and justice, including “targeted economic sanctions against the military junta, a comprehensive arms embargo including on aviation fuel, and referral of the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court or the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal.”