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Tearful Myanmar protesters are reunited with their loved ones thousands were released by junta

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Tearful Myanmar protesters were reunited with their loved ones today after thousands were released by the military junta who jailed them up to eight months ago for opposing the coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi.

Crowds gathered on Tuesday outside prisons around the country, waiting for at least a glimpse of friends and relatives who were being freed under an amnesty for people that were arrested in February and March.

The head of the army-installed government, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, announced the amnesty covering more than 5,600 people on Monday. 

State television said it included 1,316 convicts who would be freed from prisons around the country and 4,320 others pending trial whose charges would be suspended.

The announcement came three days after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations delivered a rare snub by declining to invite Min Aung Hlaing to an upcoming summit, even though Myanmar is part of the 10-member bloc.

Tearful Myanmar protesters were reunited with their loved ones today after thousands were released by the military junta who jailed them nine months ago for opposing the coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi. Pictured: A man celebrates with relatives after being released from Insein Prison in Yangon on October 19, 2021

Tearful Myanmar protesters were reunited with their loved ones today after thousands were released by the military junta who jailed them nine months ago for opposing the coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi. Pictured: A man celebrates with relatives after being released from Insein Prison in Yangon on October 19, 2021

Newly released detainees gather with relatives outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19, 2021. SAC released more than 5000 political detainees in the whole country

Newly released detainees gather with relatives outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19, 2021. SAC released more than 5000 political detainees in the whole country

Pictured: A bus arrives carrying released prisoners in Myanmar to a cheering crowd of relatives The head of the army-installed government, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, announced the amnesty covering more than 5,600 people on Monday

Pictured: A bus arrives carrying released prisoners in Myanmar to a cheering crowd of relatives The head of the army-installed government, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, announced the amnesty covering more than 5,600 people on Monday

Detainees released from Insein Prison celebrate in Yangon on October 19, 2021, as authorities released thousands of people jailed for protesting against a February coup that ousted the civilian government

Detainees released from Insein Prison celebrate in Yangon on October 19, 2021, as authorities released thousands of people jailed for protesting against a February coup that ousted the civilian government

Junta head Min Aung Hlaing announced the release of 5,636 prisoners after foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) refused to invite him to the October 26-28 summit

Junta head Min Aung Hlaing announced the release of 5,636 prisoners after foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) refused to invite him to the October 26-28 summit 

The move reflected ASEAN’s frustration with the continued stalling of a visit to the country by its special envoy, who was appointed as part of an initiative to find a way out of the violent crisis that has gripped Myanmar since the army overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February.

The government had refused to grant the request of the special envoy, Brunei Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, to meet with Suu Kyi. 

She has been detained since the military takeover and is being tried on several charges that her supporters say are politically motivated. 

There has been chaos in Myanmar since the coup, with more than 1,100 civilians killed in a bloody crackdown on dissent and more than 8,000 arrested, according to a local monitoring group.

Before the release, more than 7,300 were behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Min Aung Hlaing said the release was to mark Thadingyut festival later in October.   

At Insein Prison in Yangon, which for decades has served as the main place of detention for political prisoners, a stream of buses carrying released detainees exited the gates and pushed slowly through a jubilant crowd. 

Some shouted with delight and handed roses through the vehicles’ open windows.

Family members hugged and wept as they were reunited after months of uncertainty for some, with the prisoners’ isolation heightened by lockdown measures meant to help contain the coronavirus pandemic.

One released detainee, who declined to identify herself to avoid drawing the authorities’ attention, was crying as she stood outside the prison walls and spoke to her daughter on a mobile telephone.

‘Your mother is free from the suffering,’ she said, blinking away tears. ‘Please come and wait for me downstairs, my daughter. I am free.’

There were similar scenes on Monday night when the first of the releases began.

Pictured: Relatives hug after protesters against the junta military takeover in February were released on Tuesday

Pictured: Relatives hug after protesters against the junta military takeover in February were released on Tuesday

State television said it included 1,316 convicts who would be freed from prisons around the country and 4,320 others pending trial whose charges would be suspended. Relatives wait for the release of their political detainee relatives outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19, 2021

State television said it included 1,316 convicts who would be freed from prisons around the country and 4,320 others pending trial whose charges would be suspended. Relatives wait for the release of their political detainee relatives outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19, 2021

Pictured: Newly released detainees get on busses after outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19, 2021. SAC released more than 5000 political detainees in the whole country

Pictured: Newly released detainees get on busses after outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19, 2021. SAC released more than 5000 political detainees in the whole country

Relatives wait for the release of their political detainee relatives outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19

Relatives wait for the release of their political detainee relatives outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar on October 19

Min Aung Hlaing's administration has justified its power grab citing alleged vote rigging in last year's elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party won convincingly

Min Aung Hlaing’s administration has justified its power grab citing alleged vote rigging in last year’s elections, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won convincingly

Min Aung Hlaing tied the timing of the amnesty to the upcoming traditional Thadingyut festival of lights, suggesting that it could help restore peace and stability.

But it was seen by many people as a goodwill gesture meant to offset the unpleasant publicity from being chastised by fellow ASEAN members.

Min Aung Hlaing’s government is already a pariah to many Western nations, which condemn it not only for overthrowing Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government but also for using deadly force to suppress protests against its rule.

A detailed accounting by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners blames security forces for the killings of almost 1,200 civilians. The government now faces a growing insurgency in many parts of the country.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, welcomed the prisoners’ release but said on Twitter that it came ‘not because of a change of heart, but because of pressure.’ 

He added that they had been detained ‘illegally for exercising their fundamental human rights.’

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says at least 9,043 people have been arrested since the takeover, and 7,355 were in detention when the amnesty was announced.

Journalists, celebrities and internet influencers were among those benefiting from the amnesty, but important political prisoners such as Suu Kyi remain in detention.

There were similar scenes on Monday night when the first of the releases began. Pictured: Newly-released prisoners wave from a bus as they depart the Insein Prison in Yangon on October 18, 2021

There were similar scenes on Monday night when the first of the releases began. Pictured: Newly-released prisoners wave from a bus as they depart the Insein Prison in Yangon on October 18, 2021

A man (C) is reunited with his family members outside the Insein Prison following his release in Yangon on October 18, 2021

A man (C) is reunited with his family members outside the Insein Prison following his release in Yangon on October 18, 2021

People react as they are reunited with their family members outside the Insein Prison following her release in Yangon on October 18, 2021

People react as they are reunited with their family members outside the Insein Prison following her release in Yangon on October 18, 2021

Pictured: A bus arrives on Monday night carrying newly-released prisoners in Myanmar

Pictured: A bus arrives on Monday night carrying newly-released prisoners in Myanmar

The release comes on the heels of ASEAN’s decision to exclude miltiary chief Min Aung Hlaing from an upcoming summit of the 10-country bloc over his administration’s commitment to defusing the bloody crisis.  

The bloc, widely criticised as a toothless organisation, took a strong stand after the junta rebuffed requests for a special envoy to meet ‘all stakeholders’ in Myanmar – seen to include ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ASEAN statement, issued by Brunei which is hosting the summit, noted ‘insufficient progress’ in the implementation of a five-point plan agreed by the bloc’s leaders in April to end the post-coup turmoil.

It added the situation in Myanmar ‘was having an impact on regional security as well as the unity, credibility and centrality of ASEAN.’ 

The junta slammed the exclusion, saying it was ‘extremely disappointed and strongly objected’ to the decision. 

In a statement the military accused ASEAN of breaching its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states.  

‘The discussions and decision on Myanmar’s representation issue was done without consensus and was against the objectives of ASEAN,’ the foreign ministry said. 

Min Aung Hlaing on Monday blamed his opponents for the prolonged unrest and insisted the ruling military was committed to peace and democracy. 

In his first comments since Myanmar’s neighbours decided to exclude him from the upcoming summit, he called on the organisation to consider the provocations and violence being carried out by its opponents.

He made no mention of the ASEAN decision, but suggested the outlawed National Unity Government (NUG) and armed ethnic groups were trying to sabotage the ASEAN-led peace process.

‘More violence happened due to provocations of terrorist groups,’ Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech on television, where he appeared in civilian attire. 

‘No one cares about their violence, and is only demanding we solve the issue. ASEAN should work on that.’

Released prisoners greet their friends and family members from the windows of a bus, outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

Released prisoners greet their friends and family members from the windows of a bus, outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

Detainees released from Insein Prison celebrate with the crowd in Yangon on October 19, 2021

Detainees released from Insein Prison celebrate with the crowd in Yangon on October 19, 2021

A woman (R) gives flowers to greet her son after he was released from prison, outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

A woman (R) gives flowers to greet her son after he was released from prison, outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

A man flashes the three-finger salute as he holds up a placard with the name of a family member who is expected to be released from prison, outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

A man flashes the three-finger salute as he holds up a placard with the name of a family member who is expected to be released from prison, outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

Min Aung Hlaing said Myanmar wanted ASEAN’s special envoy, Erywan Yusof, to visit the country as agreed, but some of his demands were non-negotiable. He did not elaborate.

The NUG, a broad alliance of anti-coup groups that includes members of Suu Kyi’s ousted ruling party, has backed the training and formation of militias called ‘People’s Defence Forces’ behind attacks on security forces in several regions of the country.

The NUG recently declared a nationwide rebellion against military rule.

The shadow government on Monday welcomed ASEAN’s exclusion of the junta leader, but said the NUG should be the legitimate representative.

‘ASEAN excluding Min Aung Hlaing is an important step, but we request that they recognise us as the proper representative,’ said its spokesman Dr. Sasa.

However, he said the NUG would accept inviting a truly neutral alternative Myanmar representative.

Myanmar, mostly ruled by the military since a 1962 coup, has been a thorn in ASEAN’s side since it joined in 1997.

Min Aung Hlaing’s administration has justified its power grab citing alleged vote rigging in last year’s elections, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won convincingly.

The coup snuffed out Myanmar’s short-lived dalliance with democracy and the 76-year-old Suu Kyi now faces a raft of charges in a junta court that could see her jailed for decades.

Last week, her chief lawyer said he had been banned by the junta from speaking to journalists, diplomats or international organisations.

The other lawyers on her legal team also faced a similar ban – effectively muzzling the key sources of information on court proceedings, from which journalists are barred.

Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who has spent much of her life resisting Myanmar’s generals, is scheduled to testify in court for the first time later this month.

The released detainees gesture from a truck outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

The released detainees gesture from a truck outside the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

People wait under umbrellas for detainees to be released from Insein Prison in Yangon on October 19, 2021

People wait under umbrellas for detainees to be released from Insein Prison in Yangon on October 19, 2021

Staff members of Myanmar correctional department open barricades before the release of detainees at the main entrance of the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

Staff members of Myanmar correctional department open barricades before the release of detainees at the main entrance of the Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

A released detainee flashes three-fingers salute from the window of a bus as he leaves Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

A released detainee flashes three-fingers salute from the window of a bus as he leaves Insein prison in Yangon, Myanmar, 19 October 2021

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s military-appointed authorities are doing their best to revive an economy in turmoil since a February coup and stabilise the kyat currency, a minister told Reuters on Tuesday, blaming the crisis partly on foreign backers of its opponents.

The currency lost more than 60 percent of its value in September after the Southeast Asian nation was roiled by months of protests, strikes and economic paralysis following the coup.

Inflation has soared to 6.51% since the military took power from 1.51% previously, and foreign reserves stand at 11 trillion kyat, or $6.04 billion at the central bank’s official rate, the minister, Aung Naing Oo, said in a rare interview.

It was the first time Myanmar had disclosed its level of foreign currency since the coup, and compares with a World Bank figure of just $7.67 billion at the end of 2020.

The junta’s investment minister said Myanmar was suffering from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic but attributed its economic troubles to sabotage by opponents of the junta, a strategy he said was backed by some foreign elements.

‘The pandemic has posed in Myanmar a serious threat. It has led to an economic slowdown that has been worsened by sabotage and civil disobedience that has affected national stability,’ said the key former policymaker in the army-backed government that ran Myanmar after the end of direct military rule in 2011.

Asked which countries had backed ‘economic sabotage’ and what evidence there was, he declined to specify, saying only: ‘We have received a number of evidence of how they interfere.’

International media had exaggerated the crisis, he said, adding: ‘Hopefully, in a few months, we will be able to restore our normal situation.’

Six foreign companies had applied for permission to exit Myanmar since the coup and others had suspended their business, he added.

Protesters wearing masks depicting ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, flash three-finger salutes as they take part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 28, 2021

Protesters wearing masks depicting ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, flash three-finger salutes as they take part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 28, 2021

Demonstrators react as tear gas is fired by police during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, March 2021

Demonstrators react as tear gas is fired by police during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, March 2021

Demonstrator stand with their shields and shout slogans during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar, 08 March 2021

Demonstrator stand with their shields and shout slogans during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar, 08 March 2021

Protesters defend themselves with makeshift shields during clashes with riot police on February 28, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar

Protesters defend themselves with makeshift shields during clashes with riot police on February 28, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar

They include one of the biggest investors, Norwegian telecoms company Telenor, which announced in July it was selling its Myanmar operations to Lebanese investment firm M1 Group for $105 million.

Telenor executives had been requested not to leave the country while the deal is pending approval, Aung Naing Oo said. 

The fall in the value of the kyat has driven up food and fuel prices in a fragile economy the World Bank forecasts to contract 18% this year, slumping far more than its neighbours.

Steps had been taken to build confidence in the currency, said Aung Naing Oo, a former member of the military who had served in the ousted government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Authorities will encourage use of online payments, loans for farmers and debt moratoria, among other efforts to help the economy, he added.

The ratio of tax to gross domestic product had fallen to 5% to 6%, down from 8.4% in 2020, he said. Opponents of the coup have been refusing to pay tax to the junta, which has sought to crush resistance in an attempt to consolidate power.

Troops have killed hundreds of opponents and dozens of children since seizing power and detaining most of the civilian leadership, according to monitoring group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Asked why he, someone known as a reformer, was working for a military that had reversed the democratic transition, Aung Naing Oo said he thought he would have ‘more power to push for reforms’ if he accepted the appointment as minister.

His predecessor and ex-boss, Thaung Tun, the investment minister under Suu Kyi’s government, is one of several former senior officials who have been detained since the coup.

He is being held in a guesthouse in the capital, Naypyitaw, said Aung Naing Oo, ‘in a very safe area with other ministers’.

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