Leaders of student unions, journalists among prisoners freed in ‘Independence Day amnesty’

Several student activists arbitrarily detained in the wake of the military coup nearly two years ago were among the approximately 7,000 prisoners released in the Myanmar junta’s “Independence Day amnesty” on Wednesday.

Most of the political prisoners freed in the move were serving three-year sentences for incitement under the Section 505a of the Penal Code. Many had already completed two-thirds of their terms and were due to return home later this year. 

Among them were Yangon University Student Union central executive committee members Aung Phone Maw and Lay Pyay Soe Moe, as well as Sitt Naing—also known as Zaw Htet Naing—who was the vice chair of the Yangon Educational University Student Union, and Aye Aung, a former leader of All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).

The four student activists were among hundreds of people arrested in Yangon’s Tamwe Township in March 2021 for taking part in protests against the military coup one month earlier. They were later convicted of incitement and handed three-year prison terms with hard labour.

Aung Phone Maw and Sitt Naing were released from Kyaikmayaw Prison in Mon State, according to their relatives, after being transferred following their sentencing in Yangon. Thirty-three of the more than 100 prisoners freed from the site were political dissidents, according to sources familiar with the cases in question. 

Aung Phone Maw was a fourth-year mathematics student at Yangon University prior to his arrest. He joined the student union in 2018 and became a member of the central executive committee the following year. 

He was active in defending student and ethnic rights, and openly condemned the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. He wrote regular political commentary on the anti-dictatorship movement and became an editor at the Oway Journal in 2019. 

Meanwhile, Aye Aung and Lay Pyay Soe Moe were freed from Thayawady Prison in Bago Region, where they had been transferred from Yangon’s Insein Prison in April last year.

Aye Aung is a former political prisoner who was imprisoned from 1998 and 2012 for his activism; he was arrested again for taking part in anti-junta protests in the wake of the 2021 military coup.

In Mandalay, activist Aung Hmine San and veteran of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising Nyi Nyi Kyaw were also released from Obo Prison on Wednesday. Both were arrested in the weeks that immediately followed the coup for taking part in anti-dictatorship activities and were subsequently sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for incitement.

“They were both released and are in good health now,” a source close to the men told Myanmar Now.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw had been part of the Metta Campaign Youth project, which monitored the activities of Mandalay’s parliament, and he conducted research concerning the Mandalay City Development Committee. 

Among those released on Wednesday were a handful of journalists who had been charged with incitement. They included Thuzar, who was detained in September 2021 and released from Insein Prison. Sai Ko Ko Tun, a former reporter at 7Day News, which ceased operations after the coup, was freed from Dawei Prison in Tanintharyi Region.

Chair of the Kachin National Congress M Kawn La was also among the inmates freed in the amnesty. He was detained in August 2021 in Naypyitaw and charged with incitement after openly criticising the coup regime. He was the first leader of a prominent ethnic political party to be arrested in the aftermath of the coup.

Three officials affiliated with the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government were also released this week: former religious affairs minister Thura Aung Ko; Htin Lin Oo, who was once the party’s information officer; and Yangon City Development Committee member Than Myint Aung. 

Neither NLD President Win Myint nor State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is serving a 33-year prison sentence, were included in the amnesty. 

In a statement on the prisoner release, the regime said that those convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape, the use of explosives and terrorism would not see their sentences commuted. 

Other charges described by the military regime as “serious” included corruption and violations of the Disaster Management and Unlawful Association acts, which have been used against Suu Kyi and her cabinet members.

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