Dozens were freed from jails across Burma on Friday morning, with expectant crowds hopeful that political prisoners will join them as day goes on.
Thirty were released from prison in Mandalay, while 29 were freed from Sittwe, Arakan State and groups of 17 and 30 freed from jails in the Pegu Division towns of Tharrawaddy and Taungoo, respectively. Over 100 have been released from Rangoon’s Insein Prison.
Large crowds remain gathered outside prisons across the country, including Insein, where a list has been published of prisoners set for release. One prisoner of conscience, protestor Thet Wai, was included among the names of those freed in the former capital on Monday.
Thet Wai greeted supporters outside the lock up, where he spent four months for protesting without permission.
“There are many political prisoners remaining inside. I can’t be satisfied yet, I feel terrible in my heart,” said Thet Wai, who staged a solo protest in Rangoon on 10 December last year calling for the release of fellow activist Nay Myo Zin.
Expectations of a mass release on Friday were stoked by a Thursday statement from State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. The National League for Democracy leader pledged to pardon all of Burma’s 400 people serving time or awaiting sentences for political activities.
Thingyan, or Burmese New Year, falls next week. Mass presidential pardons have been granted around the date in the past, giving rise to expectations that Suu Kyi will release Burma’s remaining political prisoners as her government’s first action.
However, the statement released Thursday spelled out potential hurdles for her administration in making a unilateral decision to release prisoners and government spokesperson Zay Htay poured cold water on hopes of a mass release in Burma this afternoon, telling DVB:
“It is on going process. The relevant officials are working on it. Now, we are trying. We are trying to get them release as fast as possible. We called some officials from Home Ministry yesterday. Firstly, we need to verify, verify the list of who are in the list of political prisoners. Then, secondly, we will focus on the students who are under trial at courts.
“The information was wrong [release of political prisoners today]. We heard that rumours yesterday. We cannot give confirmation. We are still working on it.”
The president, Htin Kyaw, can sign a writ to amnesty around 100 political prisoners who have already been convicted. Freeing the roughly 300 jailed while facing trial on politically motivated charges is more complicated. Support from the military, or the courts and the public prosecutor would be required to end cases such as the one brought against the dozens of education reform activists who remain jailed at Tharrawaddy.
Families and supporters gathered at the local court early on Friday to greet the students, donning flowers and sprinkling them with water in the New Year tradition. No indication has yet come that today’s court date might see the charges against them dropped.
Many of the students, including leaders Phyoe Phyoe Aung, Nanda Sitt Aung and Kyaw Ko Ko, are facing counts of sedition and causing public alarm, charges brought against them in the wake of a chaotic end to education reform protests in nearby Letpadan over one year ago.
Police turned to violence to break up the hundreds-strong protest, drawing local and international condemnation. The students implicated face jail terms of up to five years.