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After Prisoner Release, More—Not Less—Pressure Needed on Myanmar’s Brutal Regime


Police clear the way for a bus carrying prisoners being released outside Insein Prison in Yangon on Nov. 17, 2022. / AFP

The release of some political prisoners in Myanmar comes as good news for the detainees’ families and friends. We must allow them their relief and their tears of joy at the news. But we must also see the amnesty for what it is: a cynical gesture, little more than a worn-out dirty trick from the decades-old playbook used by regimes past and present. We should not be fooled by it.

We all know that the ones who should be in prison in Myanmar are the leaders of this brutal regime. As we read the feel-good headlines about prisoners being freed, the junta continues to commit daily atrocities and war crimes in the countryside.

In an act officially intended to mark Myanmar’s National Day—and likely a calculated attempt to ease some of the growing international pressure on the generals without making any changes in their brutal behavior—almost 6,000 prisoners were released, including a handful of high-profile foreign detainees: former UK Ambassador Vicky Bowman; Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and former Daw Aung San Suu Kyi aide; and Japanese filmmaker Toru Kubota. None of the foreigners committed any crime and they did not deserve to be in prison in the first place. In recent weeks, foreign governments had lobbied hard for their freedom.

Among the Myanmar citizens released was Ko Mya Aye, a member of the 88 Generation Students Group and an outspoken critic of the regime.

Ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) Central Executive Committee member Dr. Myo Nyunt and legal adviser U Kyaw Ho, prominent writer Maung Tha Cho and well-known Buddhist monk Shwe Nya War Sayadaw were released from Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison on Thursday after nearly two years’ detention. The four were among those arrested on the first day of the coup.

Also freed was U Kyaw Tint Swe, a former ambassador to the UN under Senior General Than Shwe’s regime—in which role he strongly defended the then junta, known as the State Peace and Development Council—and who later served as minister for the Office of the State Counselor under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He is not a member of the NLD.

Signs emerged recently that a release was imminent. In October, Turnell was transferred to Insein Prison from Naypyitaw after his sentencing by a junta court there. A few weeks ago, prison authorities told U Kyaw Tint Swe and well-known detainees from the entertainment industry to write appeal letters, promising them they would be released. The release of all political prisoners is conditional; if they are later found to be involved in political activities, they will be thrown back into prison.

Some analysts and diplomats point out that the release comes in the wake of increasing pressure from the West, including additional economic sanctions, as well as stepped up criticism from governments in the region.

At its recent summit in Cambodia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continued to bar junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from attending. Calls are growing within the regional bloc to engage more with Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah recently said his country would not support the regime’s elections in 2023. Moreover, calls to expel Myanmar from ASEAN are growing louder. Myanmar’s powerful neighbor China, while happy to let ASEAN publicly take the lead on the crisis, continues to play a role behind the scenes, having also opened a line of communication with the NUG. Beijing also recently expressed concern over Myanmar’s deteriorating economic situation and instability.

But democracy activists and regime opponents say the pressure is still insufficient, the release of a few political prisoners notwithstanding. They point out that with the exception of veteran Muslim activist Ko Mya Aye, the regime freed only political prisoners who pose little threat. And while the foreigners will doubtless be glad to be going home, for the Myanmar citizens released, their newfound “freedom” simply means moving to a bigger prison.

This week and last—even as the ASEAN Summit delegates were meeting—the regime continued to burn down villages in Sagaing Region, sending fighter jets and helicopters to conduct air raids and commit atrocities. Far from halting, the regime’s machinery of violence only moved into a higher gear.

Which makes it all the more difficult to swallow when some pundits outside of Myanmar cite the prisoner release as evidence that pressure and lobbying efforts are working.

Many prominent political prisoners including President U Win Myint, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and a large number of chief ministers and well-known activists remain behind bars. Over 13,000 political prisoners continue to languish in the country’s jails. Many have received death sentences, and concern for their fate remains high after the regime’s execution of four activists—including a lawmaker and a prominent activist—in July, ahead of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Cambodia.

The international response to the Myanmar crisis has been feeble and remains entirely insufficient.

In the wake of the regime’s amnesty on Thursday, Cambodia has turned out to be the first to drink the junta’s Kool-Aid. Its Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, who serves as ASEAN’s Special Envoy on Myanmar, said in a statement on the same day that he considered the mass release an important gesture and a sign of “good will in pursuing a peaceful solution to the current crisis.” He also said he will visit Myanmar for the third time in the coming weeks “to assist Myanmar’s return to normalcy and [a] democratic path.” In February, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen mistakenly said Turnell had been released as a result of a request the prime minister made to regime chief Min Aung Hlaing.

Since the coup, the regime has committed war crimes and atrocities on a daily basis. It should not be rewarded for resorting to old tricks designed to ease some pressure and gain legitimacy.

I have seen this script played out many times over the past 30 years—I have also seen the way it dupes some in the international community into believing that compromise with the junta is possible.

ASEAN and true friends of Myanmar should stand firm and refuse to drink the junta’s Kool-Aid.