Myanmar Military Releases Over 3,000 Prisoners in Thingyan Amnesty

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Myanmar Military Releases Over 3,000 Prisoners in Thingyan Amnesty

Among those released was Dr. Hkalam Samson, a prominent Kachin Christian leader, and three members of the National League for Democracy.

Myanmar Military Releases Over 3,000 Prisoners in Thingyan Amnesty

Released prisoners sit in a bus and are welcomed by family members and colleagues after they were released from Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, April 17, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Thein Zaw

Myanmar’s military junta yesterday released more than 3,300 prisoners in a mass amnesty to mark the annual Thingyan New Year festival, a day after ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was moved from prison to house arrest.

The state broadcaster MRTV reported yesterday that Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the ruling military council, pardoned 3,303 prisoners, including 28 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. The country’s remaining prisoners will have their sentences cut by one-sixth, except those convicted under weapons, terrorism, corruption, and drug laws.

Such amnesties are common on important national and Buddhist holidays in Myanmar. Since the February 2021 coup, the military junta has announced several such releases, including on the past three Thingyan festivals, as did the various military administrations that have ruled the country since 1962.

Yesterday afternoon, relatives of prisoners gathered at the entrance to Insein Prison in Yangon, as buses bore the pardoned detainees out of the prison gates. As The Associated Press reported, “some held up signs with the names of the people they were seeking, in the same fashion as at an airport arrival hall.”

The Thingyan amnesties came a day after a junta spokesperson confirmed that ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s former president Win Myint had been moved from prison cells to house arrest. The reason, the spokesperson claimed, was the intense dry season heat in the two cities in central Myanmar where the elderly pair are being held. Both were arrested on the morning of the military coup in February 2021.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many of those released yesterday were political prisoners, but the most prominent among the confirmed names was Dr. Hkalam Samson, a prominent Kachin Christian leader, who was released from Myitkyina prison in Kachin State yesterday, The Irrawaddy reported.

Samson, the former president of the Kachin Baptist Convention and chairman of the Kachin National Consultative Assembly, has played a prominent role as an advocate for religious freedom and ethnic minority rights in Myanmar. In this capacity, he met with President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2019, Samson was part of a Myanmar delegation hosted at the White House, where he told President Donald Trump that ethnic groups were being “oppressed and tortured” by Myanmar’s military and thanked him for imposing sanctions on four top generals for the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya in western Myanmar.

This resulted in threats of legal action from Myanmar’s military and put a target on his back after the coup of February 2021. Samson was arrested at Mandalay International Airport in December 2022 while he was waiting to fly to Thailand for medical treatment. The following April, he was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of terrorism, unlawful association, and inciting opposition to the regime in Myanmar. According to his attorney, two of the charges arose from a trip he took in January 2022 to the town of Laiza on the Chinese border, the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), one of the junta’s staunchest opponents, which has been fighting for decades for autonomy from the central state.

According to a report in The Irrawaddy, the other confirmed political detainees released yesterday were three prominent members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was in government prior to the coup: Kachin State Social Affairs Minister Ne Win, Kachin State immigration and population minister Zaw Win, and Thant Zin Tun, an elected NLD lawmaker from Naypyidaw.

The purpose of such amnesties has historically been to portray Myanmar’s governments as merciful, beneficent, and thus politically legitimate, but this goal now seems increasingly at odds with the reality on the ground. Over the past six months, the junta has lost considerable ground in various regions of the country, including in Rakhine State, northern Shan State, and, most recently, the eastern part of Karen State bordering Thailand.

While the military regime is likely some way from collapse, the gap between its rituals of political legitimization and the increasingly constrained extent of its real power is now as wide as it has been at any point since the coup.