Myanmar junta frees hundreds held for anti-coup protests

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Hundreds of people imprisoned for demonstrating against last month’s coup in Myanmar were released Wednesday, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement.

Witnesses outside Insein Prison in Yangon saw busloads of mostly young people, looking happy with some flashing the three-finger gesture of defiance adopted by protesters. State-run TV said a total of 628 were freed.

Also Wednesday, Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month while covering an anti-coup protest, was released.

Myanmar’s security forces have cracked down violently on protests against a Feb. 1 coup that reversed a decade of progress toward democracy in the Southeast Asian country and ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says that at least 275 people have been killed in connection with the crackdown. Thousands have also been arrested, and more than 2,000 remain in custody or have charges against them outstanding.

Wednesday’s release was an unusual overture by the military, which has so far seemed impervious both internal pressure from protests and outside pressure from sanctions. In the face of an increasingly brutal crackdown, demonstrators tried a new tactic Wednesday that they dubbed a silence strike, calling on people to stay home and businesses to close for the day.

The prisoners released appear to be the hundreds of students detained in early March. One lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity because she fears drawing attention from the authorities, said all those released were arrested on March 3. She said only 55 people detained in connection with the protests remained in the prison, and it is likely they will all face charges under a law that carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

The mass release came the same day that Thein Zaw was also freed. Thein Zaw told the AP that the judge in his case announced during a hearing that all charges against him were dropped because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

“I’m looking forward to meeting my family members,” he said. “I’m sorry for some colleagues who are still in prison.”

Meanwhile, messages online urged people to stay home Wednesday in protest — rather than flooding the streets as they have in the past — saying silence is “the loudest scream.” The messages explained the strike’s purpose was to honor the movement’s fallen heroes, to allow protesters to recharge and to contradict the junta’s claims that “everything is back to normal.”

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. Some protesters did go out, to release red balloons with leaflets attached.

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

Local media reported that a 7-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 neighborhood. 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.

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