Myanmar junta releases hundreds arrested during protests crackdown

Protesters detained by police during the anti-coup demonstrations pose after being released at Tamwe township police station in Yangon, Myanmar.

Myanmar’s junta freed hundreds of demonstrators arrested during its brutal crackdown on protests on Wednesday, while many businesses in Yangon remained shut and streets were deserted after anti-coup activists called for a silent strike.

Several buses full of prisoners drove out of Yangon’s Insein jail in the morning, said witnesses, who included lawyers for some inmates.

There was no immediate word from authorities on how many prisoners were freed.

“All the released are the ones arrested due to the protests, as well as night arrests or those who were out to buy something,” said a member of a legal advisory group who said he saw around 15 buses leaving.

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The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 2,000 people have been arrested in the military crackdown on the protests against the February 1 coup.

Among those freed on Wednesday, was Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month, AP reported, citing him saying the judge had dropped the charges because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

Many businesses were closed in Yangon, and few vehicles were seen on the road in the country’s biggest city, witnesses said, after a call by pro-democracy activists for a silent strike.

“No going out, no shops, no working. All shut down. Just for one day,” Nobel Aung, an illustrator and activist, said.

“The usual meat and vegetables vendors on the street didn’t show up,” said a resident of the city’s Mayangone district. “No car noises, only birds.”

A teacher in the Kyauktada district said the roads were deserted. “There aren’t many people in the streets, only water delivery men,” the resident said.

The strike comes a day after staff at a funeral service in Mandalay said that a seven-year-old girl had died of bullet wounds in the city – the youngest of about 275 people killed in the bloody crackdown, according to the AAPP.

Soldiers shot at her father but hit the girl who was sitting on his lap inside their home, her sister told the Myanmar Now media outlet. Two men were also killed in the district, it said.

The military had no immediate comment on the incident.

The Myanmar office of the United Nations children’s agency said “the continuing use of force against children, including the use of live ammunition, by security forces is taking a devastating toll on children in Myanmar.”

UNICEF said in a statement that since the crisis started at least 23 children had been killed and at least 11 others seriously injured.

The junta has faced international condemnation for staging the coup that halted Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy and for its lethal suppression of the protests that followed.

It has tried to justify the takeover by saying a November 8 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was fraudulent – an accusation the electoral commission has rejected. Military leaders have promised a new election but have not set a date and have declared a state of emergency.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Tuesday 164 protesters had been killed and expressed sadness at the deaths, a day after the European Union and the United States imposed more sanctions on groups or individuals linked to the coup.

He blamed the bloodshed on the protesters and said nine members of the security forces had been also killed.

He said strikes and hospitals not fully operating had caused deaths, including from COVID-19, calling them “undutiful and unethical”.

Opponents of military rule have regularly called for strikes and parts of the economy have been paralysed by a civil disobedience campaign, including among civil servants.

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup and faces charges that her lawyer says have been cooked up to discredit her.

The ousted leader was due to appear for another court hearing via video conferencing on Wednesday, but the head of her legal team Khin Maung Zaw said it had been postponed until April 1, marking the second successive delay due to internet issues.

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