Myanmar’s Junta Releases Jailed Anti-Coup Activists And Government Employees
But critics see a stunt to gain international recognition for the self-styled 'caretaker government.'
Myanmar’s junta on Monday released jailed political activists and government employees who took part in anti-coup protests, a day after announcing that it would extend its hold on power, in what observers say was a move meant to appease international critics of its rule.
Monday’s amnesty comes a day after military chief Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing declared himself prime minister in a newly formed “caretaker government” that will rule through 2023. He said he would release all political detainees who had not played a leading role in anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).
Political analysts said the use of the term “caretaker” is an attempt by the junta that overthrew Myanmar’s elected government to get recognition as a civilian government at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Among those released Monday were prominent critics of the junta, including the abbot of Myawaddy Mingyi Monastery, Ven. Ariyabiwuntha; Dr. Pyae Pyo Naing, from the Mezaligone Sub-district Hospital of Ayeyarwady region’s Ingapu township; and Dr. Than Min Htut, the Chief of the Pathein District Hospital in Ayeyarwady.
The junta’s Ministry of Home Affairs said 27 state employees who were imprisoned for joining the CDM would be released in Ayeyarwady region on Monday, while an official from the Yangon Region Prisons Department said that around 20 prisoners would be freed. The names and exact number of those permitted to leave detention were not provided.
Ven. Ariyabiwuntha, who was arrested on the day of the military’s coup d’état for criticizing its interference in Myanmar’s political system, was released from Mandalay’s Oboe Prison, his lawyer Zey Lin Maung told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“He was arrested on Feb. 1 and disrobed that very day. The following day, he was charged under Section 500 of the Penal Code for ‘defamation of the military’ and taken to court for a trial that lasted the next several months,” he said.
“Finally, on June 15, he was found guilty … and sentenced to six months in prison with labor. It seems he was freed because he had completed his term [on Aug. 2].”
Dr. Pyae Pyo Naing, who was arrested on Feb. 11, had been charged under Section 188 of the Penal Code, which prohibits civil servants from refusing to follow orders, and Section 25 of the Disaster Management Law, his lawyer, Hla Tin, told RFA.
Hla Tin said it was not immediately clear why Dr. Pyae Phyo Naing’s case was closed or why he was released from Hinthada Prison, where he had been held for the past six months.
“[The guards] said his brother came to pick him up. As far as I know, he was arrested for joining the CDM,” he added, referring to the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement against junta rule.
Dr. Than Min Htut, who was arrested on March 12 and charged under Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code for “state defamation,” was released from Pathein Prison Monday morning, according to a statement on his social media page.
‘Nothing surprising about this’
In a state television statement and a speech by Min Aung Hlaing in civilian attire, the military regime on Sunday extended army control over the country of 54 million people to two-and-a-half years, more than double the one-year emergency the junta announced days after it ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1.
Sunday’s announcement came exactly six months after the army seized power, alleging that Aung San Suu Kyi’s landslide re-election victory in the country’s November 2020 election was the result of extensive voter fraud.
The junta, which has yet to produce evidence of its claims, has violently responded to widespread protests, killing 945 people and arresting 5,474, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
On July 26, the junta annulled the results of the 2020 election, drawing condemnation from political parties who condemned the move as illegal and said they will not honor it.
An official from the AAPP told RFA on condition of anonymity that Monday’s amnesty was simply a bid by the military to dampen international criticism of its rule.
“This is their usual practice,” he said. “There is nothing surprising about this, nor is there any reason to be thankful. These people shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place and they shouldn’t have been in prison at all.”
The official suggested additional amnesties will occur as pressure continues to build on the regime.
Monday’s release comes nearly five weeks after the junta freed 2,296 inmates from various prisons across the country in a move that was greeted with skepticism by critics who called it a stunt to gain international recognition.
Despite the two amnesties, the AAPP estimates that more than 5,400 people remain in custody on politically motivated charges—including deposed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, the chief ministers of various regions and prominent political activists, as well as CDM employees and other civilians.
Bid to prolong power
On Monday, political analysts mostly dismissed Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement that he was reorganizing the junta’s management committee into a caretaker government with himself as prime minister, calling it part of a bid to prolong his grasp on power.
Kyaw Thiha, an NLD candidate who won a seat in parliament in the 2020 elections, results of which the junta annulled last week, said Min Aung Hlaing had planned to rule Myanmar ever since he became commander in chief of the country’s defense forces and that the move was made to secure his role at the top.
“He wanted to be No. 1, no matter how deep in poverty it put the country or how many people died as a result. He cannot think of anything else,” he told RFA.
Dr. Sai Kyi Zin Soe, a human rights researcher, said Min Aung Hlaing had formed a caretaker government with himself in the role of a “caretaker prime minister” in civilian clothes “to gain international recognition more easily.”
“It isn’t as easy for him as a military leader,” he said.
Despite the transformation, some observers predicted that the junta will not easily survive without popular support, noting the brutality it has demonstrated during the past six months.
Thar Tun Hla, chairman of the Rakhine National Party (RNP), said he fears such a lack of support could lead Min Aung Hlaing to extend his control of the country again before the two years of state emergency are up.
“We are worried he might come up with additional delays in the long term,” he said.
Defending the junta, Thein Tun Oo, executive director of the military-aligned Thayninga Strategic Studies Institute, told RFA the junta had been transformed to “govern more effectively.”
“Its legitimacy will follow automatically after it has taken control of the country and made progress,” he said.
Third wave worsens
Amid the political machinations, the coronavirus continues to set records in Myanmar, where the healthcare system is now at the brink of collapse due to a poorly managed third wave of outbreaks.
The country’s public hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and have been turning away all but the most seriously ill, while others were forced to settle for treatment at home amid shortages of basic medical necessities, including oxygen supplies critical to mitigating hypoxia.
The number of COVID-19 infections rose Monday to a total of 306,354 with at least 10,061 deaths, according to the junta’s Ministry of Health and Sports, although the actual number is believed to be substantially higher, based on reports by charity groups that provide free burial services.
More than 60 percent of reported deaths have occurred in the past month alone, with the number of confirmed cases doubling in the last two months.
On Monday, 16 international aid agencies warned of a humanitarian catastrophe in Myanmar, citing soaring rates of infections in communities in Kayah state and the eastern Bago region, which have witnessed mass displacement in recent months due to fighting between the military and People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias formed to protect the public in the wake of the coup.
Healthcare facilities remain shuttered throughout the country as healthcare workers who have joined the CDM face violence and threats, while more than 400 doctors and 180 nurses have been given arrest warrants since the takeover, the agencies said in a joint statement.
Meanwhile, lockdown measures, travel restrictions, bureaucratic impediments and insecurity are hampering humanitarian service delivery, they said, adding that cases of food insecurity and indebtedness are expected to climb significantly in the coming months, due to rising food prices, job losses and currency depreciation.
“As aid agencies operating in Myanmar, we call on political leaders to do everything possible to assist the people of Myanmar in their hour of need,” the statement said.
“Their actions should include the immediate … scale up [of] aid and vaccination for all across Myanmar,” the groups said, adding that the military must end its attacks on healthcare workers and provide urgent access to assistance for those who require it.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.