6 June 2024

Myanmar’s junta pardoned more than 2,000 political prisoners to mark a Buddhist holiday on Wednesday, with families rushing to prisons for tearful reunions with loved ones jailed in a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

The military has arrested thousands of protesters and activists since the February 2021 putsch that ended Myanmar’s brief democratic experiment and plunged the country into turmoil.

Pardons were granted to “2,153 prisoners serving sentences under Penal Code 505 (a) to mark Kasone Full Moon Day”, a festival marking the birth of the Buddha, the junta said in a statement.

The law carries a maximum three-year jail term.

About 50 people gathered outside Yangon’s sprawling, colonial-era Insein prison following the announcement, AFP reporters said.

As a yellow bus pulled out of the complex, some in the crowd held paper bearing their relatives’ names up to the windows.

One man reunited with his weeping family outside the prison took his baby into his arms.

Ma Ye Ye was waiting to see if her son, who was arrested under the law in 2021, would be freed.

“He was arrested for nothing,” she said, requesting a pseudonym for fear of retaliation.

“He just walked through a security gate and soldiers arrested him.”

“I was thinking this morning that it would be really good if my son was to be released on this Buddha day,” Ma Khin, another mother waiting in the crowd said, also requesting a pseudonym.

“Then I received phone calls from my relatives that there would be an amnesty… I don’t know if he will be on the list, but it’s my duty to come and wait for him.”

The military ordered the pardons “for the peaceful mind of the people and on humanitarian grounds,” it said.

Those who re-offend will have to serve the remainder of their sentence with an additional penalty, it added.

Myanmar typically grants amnesties to thousands of prisoners to mark national holidays or Buddhist festivals.

– Crackdown –

Wednesday’s announcement comes as Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is in the country for talks with the internationally isolated generals.

On Tuesday he met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, becoming the highest-profile Chinese official to meet the top general since the putsch.

“China advocates that the international community should respect Myanmar’s sovereignty and play a constructive role in helping it achieve peace and reconciliation,” Qin said, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

Several Beijing-backed infrastructure projects are slated to run through northern Myanmar and link China’s landlocked Yunnan province with the Indian Ocean.

More than 21,000 people have been arrested since the military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, according to a local monitoring group.

At least 170 journalists have been arrested during that span, according to the United Nations.

Suu Kyi has been detained since the early hours of the coup.

In December, the junta wrapped up a series of closed-court trials of the 77-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, jailing her for a total of 33 years in a process rights groups have condemned as a sham.

More than 3,400 people have been killed in the military’s crackdown on dissent since the coup, according to a monitoring group.