Myanmar junta frees hundreds of people held after anti-coup protests

Myanmar protesters against the military coup

Hundreds of people imprisoned after demonstrating against the military coup in Myanmar have been released in the first apparent gesture by authorities to placate the protest movement.

Witnesses outside Insein Prison in Yangon saw busloads of mostly young people leaving the facility, with some flashing the three-finger gesture of defiance adopted by the protest movement.

State-run TV said a total of 628 people were freed. The prisoners appear to be the hundreds of students detained in early March while demonstrating against the February 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

One lawyer said all of those released were arrested on March 3.

She said only 55 people detained in connection with the protests remain in the prison, and it is likely they will all face charges under Section 505(A) of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to three years in jail.

Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said it has confirmed the killings of 275 people in connection with the post-coup crackdown, with additional deaths still unverified.

It added that as of Tuesday, it had verified arrest or charges against 2,812 people, of whom 2,418 remain in custody or with outstanding charges.

Thein Zaw, a journalist for the Associated Press who was arrested while covering a protest in Yangon on February 27, has told his family he is also being released from detention on Wednesday.

He has not yet left custody but is expected to be released soon. There was no official confirmation of his release.

Zaw had been charged with violating a public order law that carries a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment. He had been held without bail.

About 40 journalists have been detained or charged since the February 1 coup, roughly half of whom remain behind bars.

Meanwhile, demonstrators on Wednesday tried a new tactic which they dubbed a silence strike, calling on people to stay at home and for businesses to close for the day.

The extent of the strike was difficult to gauge, but social media users posted photos from cities and towns showing streets empty of activity save for the occasional stray dog.

The online meme posted to publicise the action called silence “the loudest scream”, and explained its purpose was to honour the movement’s fallen heroes, to recharge protesters’ energy and to contradict the junta’s claims that “everything is back to normal”.

The new tactic was employed after an extended onslaught of violence from security forces.

Local media reported that a seven-year-old girl in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, was among the latest victims on Tuesday.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners included her in its list of fatalities.

“Khin Myo Chit was shot in the abdomen by a soldier while she sat in her father’s lap inside her home in Aung Pin Le ward,” the online news service Myanmar Now reported, quoting her sister, Aye Chan San.

The report said the shooting took place when soldiers were raiding homes in her family’s neighbourhood.

The sister said a soldier shot at their father when he denied that any people were hiding in their home, and hit the girl.

Aye Chan San said the soldiers then beat her 19-year-old brother with their rifle butts and took him away.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners recorded three killings in Mandalay on Tuesday, though some other reports said there had been five.

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