Journalists among thousands released by Myanmar junta after exclusion from ASEAN summit

Detained journalists were among the more than 5,600 individuals who were released from prison or saw their criminal charges dropped by the junta on Monday, according to their employers and sources close to their families. 

Detained Journalists Information, a local group which provides updates on journalists arrested by the coup regime, reported that a total of 11 media personnel, including five Kachin State-based reporters, were confirmed to have been released. 

Among them were three staff from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB); an office staff member, a reporter and the co-founder of Mizzima News; three journalists from the Myitkyina News Journal; one from Kachin Wave; one from 74 Media; and one based in Mon State with The Voice of Thanbyuzayat.

DVB reported that its three journalists—Min Nyo from Pyay and Thet Naing Win from Minhla, both in Bago Region, and Aung Kyaw from Myeik in Tanintharyi Region—were released on Monday.

Min Nyo and Aung Kyaw were arrested in March and sentenced to two years in prison for incitement under Section 505a of the Penal Code. The following month, Thet Naing Win was also arrested and sentenced to three years in prison after being charged with violating the same statute. 

DVB’s Aung Kyaw said that although he spent a total of 231 days in prison, he will continue his reporting work as journalism is the only job he knows how to do.

“I want [the authorities] to know that journalists are not criminals. I do not want them to continue treating media personnel and journalists as enemies,” he told DVB in an interview after his release on Monday. 

In his own interview with DVB, Min Nyo said he was unable to celebrate his release because his thoughts were with those he had met and shared a cell with in Pyay prison, and who were still detained. 

“They said goodbye to us and that they were happy for our release. But looking at their faces, we had to control our emotions,” he said, adding that he called for the immediate release of all prisoners who had been detained unjustly since the military coup in February.

Mizzima cofounder Thin Thin Aung and office staff member James, both arrested on April 8 and facing charges for incitement, were scheduled to be released on Tuesday, the news outlet reported. Another Myeik-based reporter from Mizzima was also freed on Monday after also being arrested in April and sentenced to two years in prison. 

A relative of detained journalist and writer Tu Tu Tha confirmed to Myanmar Now that she was released from Yangon’s Insein Prison on Tuesday along with her son, her brother and a family friend who were arrested with her in late April.

Colleagues of columnist and satirist Sithu Aung Myint and BBC Media Action’s presenter Htet Htet Aung feared they would not be among the released as their charges include “unlawful association” and “sedition.”

As of Tuesday, former reporter Thuzar and American journalist Danny Fenster were not among those scheduled for release. 

Riot police advance on a street in Yangon as members of the press take photos during a protest against the military coup on February 26 (EPA) 

On Monday morning, the junta announced plans to release 1,316 convicted detainees and drop charges against an additional 4,320 individuals, including some who are still at large, on “humanitarian grounds.” 

The amnesty, however, was only given to those either convicted or charged for incitement due to their roles in anti-junta protests, according to the announcement. Those charged with “terrorism” for their anti-junta attacks were reportedly excluded from consideration. 

The mass release came after a decision by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to allow the country’s military chief to attend the group’s summit scheduled to begin on October 26. 

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) responded to the military’s statement by asking that the move not be met with applause, instead describing it as “a tactic of the junta to stop international condemnation.”

“Action must be taken against those who committed arbitrary arrests and torture. Moreover, the junta must take full responsibility as perpetrators, apologize and institute reparations for those arbitrarily detained and physically and mentally tortured,” the AAPP said in a statement. 

UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said in a statement on Twitter that the junta’s release of political prisoners is “not because of a change of heart, but because of pressure.” 

He added that it was “outrageous” that they were detained in the first place.

“The release of those detained is due instead to pressure that is being exerted on the junta from inside and from outside of Myanmar,” he said, pointing out that the arbitrary arrest and persecution of those exercising their fundamental rights continues in the country. 

In late July, the regime also announced the release of several detained civil servants, including some health workers, who had been arrested for their participation in the Civil Disobedience Movement. The release came ​​amid a surge in Covid-19 cases among inmates and unrest over a lack of access to healthcare. However, at the time of reporting, hundreds of government employees, doctors and nurses were still detained in prisons nationwide.

The coup regime also released more than 2,200 detainees in late June, most of whom had been charged with incitement for joining anti-dictatorship protests. Many journalists, including a Myanmar Now multimedia reporter, were among the released at that time.

On Monday, the junta also closed cases against some 24 artists and 10 celebrities including social media influencers who were facing lawsuits or who had warrants issued for their arrest over their involvement in anti-junta activities.

Also among those freed on Monday were Monywa Aung Shin, a spokesperson for the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party and renowned comedian Zarganar who was arrested in early April. 

Seventy-six-year-old Monywa Aung Shin was arrested in the wake of the military coup on February 1 and had been detained for more than eight months at an interrogation centre in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township.

Kay Thwe Moe, wife of the party spokesperson, confirmed to Myanmar Now on Tuesday that he was at home resting, despite speculation on social media that the junta authorities had immediately detained him again following his release.

Some NLD parliamentarians released on Monday were detained again later that night under different charges. Details of these incidents are still unknown and Myanmar Now is continuing to gather further information on those individuals. 

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