Myanmar frees 25,000 prisoners

Myanmar President U Win Myint.

Myanmar is set to free nearly 25,000 prisoners this year as the country marks its traditional New Year, the president’s office announced on Friday.

This would mark Myanmar’s largest mass pardon in recent years, as compared with the 23,000 prisoners freed last year, and the 8,000 pardoned in 2018.

Reuters quoted President Win Myint as saying that some 24,896 prisoners, which include 87 foreigners, will be freed unconditionally “to bring delights to the citizens of Myanmar and taking into consideration humanitarian concerns.”

Details of the crimes, or if there are political prisoners to be pardoned, were not divulged, although the prison department said that Myanmar has no prisoners convicted of dissent against the government, a claim that was debunked by rights groups.

“The government doesn’t actually acknowledge political prisoners but we were asked for some lists and we gave a list of over 70,” Aung Myo Kyaw, representative of rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), told Reuters.

“We still don’t know if any of them are released,” he added.

When asked if any such prisoners were among those being released, Zaw Zaw said the department did not put labels on freed prisoners.

In addition, Reuters said that the largest unconditional pardon was not linked to concerns about the virus outbreak.

When Aung San Suu Kyi assumed office in 2016 after over half a century of military rule, one of her first agenda was to released hundreds of political prisoners from the prison.

In 2019 alone, human rights group Athan claimed that there were more than 331 people prosecuted for freedom of expression-related cases. Those behind bars include members of a satirical poetry group as well as students who were charged for protesting against a government-imposed internet shutdown.

While the military retains extensive powers, activists said that the civilian government has failed to use its overwhelming parliamentary majority to scrap repressive laws stifling dissent, tightening restrictions on civil society.

The AAPP said that there are more than 92,000 people in Myanmar’s over-stretched prison system, with some jails operating at double or triple capacity. This means that the total figure being released this year would represent over a quarter of the prison population. There was no data immediately available about the prison population from the government.

Following the announcement, crowds were said to have gathered outside Insein prison to welcome their family members despite the government ban on gatherings in a bid to keep the coronavirus outbreak at bay.