Some senior officials from the ousted civilian government remain in prison. But it was unclear Monday whether they or other protest leaders would also be released.
The junta seized power from the elected government in February and has clamped down on dissidents, including more than 1,000 who have been killed by security forces since then. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a nonprofit human rights organization, at least 7,355 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced in the post-coup period.
Analysts have cast the move, however welcome, as a cynical ploy by the country’s military either to cultivate goodwill and end its international isolation — or to divert from ongoing security crackdowns that would again shed light on its human rights abuses.
Last month, a shadow government created by the junta’s opponents — including deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi — called for an armed revolt against the generals, sparking fresh clashes between the army and pro-democracy militias.
Because Myanmar’s military “is almost bereft of domestic and international support,” it makes sense that they would grant release to prisoners en masse, said Dan Slater, director of the University of Michigan’s Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies.
The military has previously granted mass amnesties to prisoners.
Such moves provide political cover to countries already seeking ways to support the junta, Slater said, adding that they also might take “a slight edge off” the more intense pressure coming from outside powers.
“But unless and until the military releases Myanmar’s rightfully elected political leadership and returns to its own original power-sharing process, the fundamental conditions on the ground will not change or improve,” he said.
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed. He said that the prisoner release is not indicative of “any substantial step toward change” by the junta — and could be because of Myanmar’s overcrowded prisons.
Such releases have happened before, he said, and the nature of the military regime remained the same.
The generals also could have set the amnesty in motion to placate neighboring countries ahead of an important regional summit.
At an emergency meeting Friday, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) decided to exclude junta chief Min Aung Hlaing from the summit, saying that inadequate progress had been made in restoring peace to Myanmar.
Singapore’s Foreign Ministry said Friday that the exclusion was “a difficult, but necessary, decision to uphold ASEAN’s credibility,” Reuters reported.
A junta spokesman said that “foreign intervention” was to blame.
In a statement, the junta said that Myanmar was “extremely disappointed and strongly objected” to the outcome of the meeting, adding that the decision “would greatly affect the unity and centrality of ASEAN.”
Donald K. Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said the prisoner release “can only be understood” as a response to the ASEAN decision — and has implications for ASEAN’s stance on “its currently most brutal and embarrassing member.”
“If ASEAN relents and accepts the general’s presence, it will be able to claim that it actually did something effective and moral to rescue its reputation as a club of dictators,” Emmerson said. “But if that also makes it more complacent about opposing the killings and violations of human rights inside Myanmar, its reputation will not improve.”