BANGKOK -- Myanmar's government began releasing about 2,300 prisoners on Wednesday, including activists who were detained for protesting against the military's seizure of power in February and journalists who reported on the protests, officials said.
Buses took prisoners out of Yangon’s Insein Prison, where friends and families of detainees had waited since morning for the announced releases. It is standard practice to take freed prisoners to the police stations where they were originally booked to complete the processing for their freedom.
Zaw Zaw, head of the Yangon Region’s Prison Department, confirmed that more than 720 people were released from the prison, which for decades has been the main facility for political prisoners.
According to official announcements on state media, most if not all of the freed detainees faced charges related to the protests, including Section 505(A) of Myanmar’s penal code, which makes it a crime to spread comments that create public unrest or fear or spread false news, and carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.
It appeared, however, that an unknown number of people held on that charge might still be detained. Complete information was not available and the releases are expected to take place over several days.
State television reported on releases in the city of Mandalay and Naypyitaw, the capital, in addition to Yangon, the country's biggest city. Local media in more remote areas reported releases as well, including in Myitkyina in the northern state of Kachin, Lashio in Shan state in the east, and Hakha in Chin state in the west, a hotbed of opposition to military rule.
Tin Zar Oo, a lawyer who with her colleagues represents political detainees and journalists, said about half of the 100 people whose cases they handle, including journalists arrested as long as four months ago, were released Wednesday.
A statement from the military said 2,296 prisoners were being released. Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun earlier told China’s Xinhua news agency that the released detainees were “those are who took part in the protests but did not take part in the violence, who did not commit crimes and did not lead the riots.”
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoner said Tuesday that 5,224 people were in detention in connection with the protests. The group keeps detailed tallies of arrests and casualties linked to the nation’s political conflicts.
There was no reason given for the timing of the releases.
The government is eager to cultivate goodwill among the public, a large part of which is hostile to it. On Tuesday it announced that it was dropping charges against about two dozen celebrities who had taken a role in the protests.
It would also like to soften its international image. The U.N. General Assembly on June 18 passed a resolution calling for an arms embargo against the Southeast Asian nation and condemning the military’s seizure of power. Several Western nations have already implemented diplomatic and economic sanctions.
Tun Kyi, a senior member of the Former Political Prisoners Society, charged that the detainees were released to reduce pressure from the international community, and said they shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.
“The military abducted dissidents and took them hostage. It is not an unconditional release of all political leaders and prisoners, but rather intended to avoid international pressure,” he said. “And there is no reason to be thankful.”
Myanmar is also facing a surge in COVID-19 cases, with 1,312 new infections reported Tuesday, bringing its total to 155,697. Crowded conditions make prisons high-risk areas for the virus, though there was no official word if that threat played a part in the releases.
The political turmoil has made the country’s health care system largely dysfunctional, severely limiting COVID-19 testing and reporting until about a month ago, when the number of confirmed cases shot up rapidly.