On November 17, in commemoration of the National Day, the regime announced a mass pardon which released close to 6000 prisoners across the country. Among them, prisoners of conscience only amounted to 700. Some personnel who took high-level offices during the NLD administration were also released in October. While the pardon was internationally welcomed, people inside the country remain cynical of the move. We talked to a journalist (John Doe) who has covered Myanmar’s politics for nearly a decade and asked his opinion on the release of detainees.
MM: Since October and November, the military regime has released political prisoners, including 88 Generation Student Leader Ko Mya Aye, Australian economist Sean Turnell, and many more. Some said that the pardon was imposed due to international pressure. How can you make sense of the junta’s move on mass pardon?
JD: I have covered several mass pardons by the government leader, for instance, President U Win Myint’s pardon for Reuters’ reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo under the NLD administration. Now the military regime has released political prisoners including foreigners who have been detained arbitrarily.
According to the data, more than 5700 detainees were released but the number of political prisoners was only about 700. People, who were detained even before the coup such as Ko Mya Aye, and writer Maung Thar Cho, have now been released. Three foreigners from three major countries were released as well.
Based on my experience as a journalist, a mass pardon basically is an authority’s attempt to ease up political tensions or pressure. The regime’s statement said how the state pardoned the prisoners for goodwill, but what I see is an army chief’s attempt to please the international community in quest of mere recognition.
In the case of Reuters journalists, the military opened a case against them, and the democratic government (NLD administration) failed to intervene throughout the court hearings and legal proceedings, which triggered criticisms from the international community. Only after the verdict was delivered and the case was completely out of the judicial system, did the NLD’s president pardon them. Now, this military council has reiterated that the coup is constitutional to this day. If you asked Min Aung Hlaing, he would answer that the judicial system made the decisions, and he could not intervene. The irony is that all these political prisoners were tried and sentenced by court martials. Only a few cases took place in so-called “special courts”, which did not allow anyone to enter and hear.
Initially, the regime announced designated jail time for some people, or verdicts publicly delivered. However, many remain detained, which shows that the regime has an agenda. Thus, as I said before, the recent mass pardon is simply a fresh dictator’s attempt to use the status of released personnel to save his face on the international stage.
MM: The NLD’s central executive committee members were also released this time around. Why do you think is that?
JD: This is not the first time the military regime released NLD personnel. We have seen that people like Monywa Aung Shin were released before. After analyzing the military’s propaganda media for a while, there are two possible reasons for the regime to release the leaders of the opposition political party.
The first reason is that the NLD can no longer threaten the military regime’s power grab. I think that’s the most logical reason. The military staged the coup, thinking its major obstacles would be the NLD, and underestimating the public. The military detained top NLD leaders and threatened the younger generation of NLD leadership. During the 1990s when the top leaders were detained the NLD was divided with no proper leadership. However, this time, the NLD, led by younger leaders, formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), and formed the National Unity Government (NUG). In addition to the NUG’s People Defense Force (PDF), local resistance forces have been born to fight against the fascist military regime. So basically, the major threat to the military is no longer the NLD.
The second possible reason is to divide and defame the NLD. Since the beginning of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing has followed tactics that Ne Win and Khin Nyunt did. In the 1960s, AFPFL was divided into two factions, similarly, in the 1990s, the NLD was divided. Now, Min Aung Hlaing is trying to do the same, he doesn’t really have a new tactic. Just like the former dictators did, some NLD personnel would be released and architected to form a new NLD, and then made them enter his sham election in 2023. And if things go according to his plot, he would let a few NLD members in the parliament he dictates.
MM: So the ASEAN special envoy welcomed the mass pardon and said that he would come to Myanmar again. However, the NUG’s president Duwa Lashi La gave an emergency speech to warn the public and the international community to be aware of the military’s trick. What do you think about this?
JD: As a parallel government, the NUG may not be excellent at foreign diplomacy but they are very well-versed in Myanmar’s history. The current opposition force has been in Myanmar’s politics since the 1990s. For more than 40 years, the Myanmar public has learned lessons from the international diplomats with their empty praises and empty promises while gaining not much benefit. When the diplomatic community praises, only the dictatorship and its followers benefit, and when they take action, it’s the working class public that suffers. So, it is fair that the NUG, as an opposition force fighting against the military, warns the ASEAN special envoy about the military’s trick. The special envoy had visited Myanmar a few times despite the NUG’s objection. No improvement was made during his visits, yet, by releasing a statement which welcomed the mass pardon, it is pretty obvious that the envoy is desperate to prove some “result” despite his failed diplomatic mission.
MM: In some media reports we have read that some people who were released were arrested again. For instance, singer Saw Pho Kwar. Can you confirm it? And what kind of remark can you make on these rearrest?
JD: Actually I cannot confirm the case of Saw Phoe Kwar, because I only heard from others, saying he was rearrested literally at the prison gate. It’s not just his case, no one inside the country under military rule feels safe, not for a second. The regime soldiers have been killing civilians in cold blood, so these rearrest are trivial compared to its other crimes.
MM: In the new reports we have seen that there are variations in the number of political prisoners. Now after this mass pardon in November, do you have the exact number of political prisoners who remain detained?
JD: According to the military’s announcement the number of released prisoners is 5774. According to my source, nearly 700 political prisoners were released. According to the AAPP’s data released on 21st November, 402 political prisoners were released, but it has only verified 161 among them. It has been very difficult to collect data due to the security concern on the ground as well as the military’s control over everything.
Also, the military regime has been very deceitful when it comes to data. Some detainees have already done their time fully, but remain detained just to make up the big number for the mass pardon. There is one person from our media industry, who finished his time six weeks prior to the mass pardon. But he was kept in the prison, and only released this month with the pardon. His days were stretched longer so that Min Aung Hlaing’s pardon could be defined as “mass”. People usually do not speak out due to security concerns but we don’t know how many detainees were kept detained like this.
MM: What kind of pressure should be inserted to the regime so that the remaining political prisoners would be released?
JD: Recently, even renowned foreigners were arrested and pressed charges with ridiculous laws, and kept in detention for months. The regime is showing how sly and cunning it can be, using its control over the state. The coup leader is not afraid to use people in his hand to his advantage. We have to wait and see his moves- like when to use whom like a game. I believe that international pressure is not useful for the release of our own people. Looking at world affairs at large, the military can survive by maintaining relations with a certain group and ignoring the others that have been imposing sanctions or pressure.
The best pressure comes from the armed resistance forces inside the country. If you look at the case of the Arakan Army (AA), the regime dismissed legal cases it opened against AA personnel after announcing the ceasefire. The Myanmar military will be flexible and negotiable only when it accepts its defeat. Once the military realizes its defeat against the AA, the regime would do anything to stop the military confrontations, and please the AA. The same strategy can be applicable- if the regime can no longer defeat Kachin Independence Army (KIA) militarily, it’d do anything to please the KIA. If the Chin forces or Karen and Karenni forces become strong enough, they’d do the same. One day when the momentum of the armed resistance becomes extremely powerful, it can pressurise the military to release every single person it has detained- be it our colleagues, young guerrilla fighters or politicians- whether in the Insein prison or any other prisons in the country. As a journalist, I wish to cover this day, and release the joyous occasion to the world soon.