Myanmar junta chief to attend Asean talks

Myanmar junta chief to attend Asean talks

Military preparing to release 23,000 prisoners but no indication whether protesters are included

Monks visit Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on Saturday, following the Thingyan festival that marks the Burmese New Year. (AFP Photo)
Monks visit Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on Saturday, following the Thingyan festival that marks the Burmese New Year. (AFP Photo)

Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing will attend an Asean leaders’ summit in Jakarta on April 24, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said on Saturday.

Myanmar’s neighbours have been trying to encourage talks between the rival sides in the country to resolve the turmoil that followed a military coup on Feb 1.

“Several leaders have confirmed their attendance including Myanmar’s MAH (Min Aung Hlaing),” Mr Tanee said in a message to reporters.

He declined to name the leaders or say whether the meeting would be face to face, online or a mix of both. However, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said he would visit Jakarta in person.

Opponents of the junta have said Asean would be hurting its credibility by giving Min Aung Hlaing a seat at the table. Dr Sasa, a spokesman for the newly formed national unity government consisting of sidelined MPs, ethnic leaders and activists, referred to the general as the “murderer in chief”.

The junta, meanwhile, has announced plans to release more than 23,000 prisoners nationwide, even as the military continues to detain and issue arrest warrants for anti-coup dissidents.

Myanmar typically grants an annual amnesty to thousands of prisoners to mark the traditional New Year holiday — which in previous years have been joyous affairs with nationwide water fights.

But this year, with the military back in power after ousting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, anti-coup activists have used the holiday as an opportunity to protest against the growing death toll and mass arrests.

It remains unclear whether anti-junta protesters or journalists jailed covering the coup will be among those freed.

A prison official told AFP on condition of anonymity that jails across the country would start freeing more than 23,000 people on Saturday. “We will release more than 800 prisoners from Insein prison” in Yangon, he added, declining to elaborate.

One of those freed was an Australian publisher who was sentenced to 13 years in jail on drugs charges, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Ross Dunkley was released after less than three years behind bars, his ex-wife said on Saturday.

Dunkley, who co-founded the Myanmar Times in 2000, was convicted of drug offences in 2019 after police discovered heroin, crystal methamphetamine and marijuana at his house.

In February, the junta released a similar number of prisoners, with some rights groups at the time fearing the move was to free up space for opponents of the military as well as cause chaos in communities.

On Wednesday a rebel group executed a man who had been freed in that amnesty, claiming that he had subsequently raped and killed a five-year-old girl.

Just before Armed Forces Day, the regime also freed around 900 jailed demonstrators.

But since the Feb 1 coup, more than 3,100 people — the bulk of them anti-coup protesters and activists — have been detained, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The junta has issued nightly arrest warrants on state-run media, targeting celebrities, influencers, journalists and prominent activists with large social media followings. By Friday night, they totalled 380.

Some 80 doctors have also been named as wanted fugitives for attempting to “deteriorate peace and stability”.

Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of a nationwide civil disobedience movement, refusing to return to work under a military regime. Their absence has left many of the country’s hospitals unstaffed during the pandemic.

The country has been under the junta’s control for 11 weeks, during which about 730 people have been killed by security forces.

The military has consistently justified the putsch by alleging widespread fraud in November’s elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s party had won in a landslide.

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