Myanmar Prisoner Amnesty Comes With A Rohingya Massacre Mystery

April 19, 2018

BANGKOK — For about an hour on Wednesday, the website of Myanmar National Television carried a surprising report: A mass prisoner amnesty the previous day, it said, had included seven members of the country’s military who were briefly jailed for a massacre of Rohingya Muslims.

 

The report was quickly taken down and was strongly denied by a government spokesman, U Zaw Htay. “It’s not true, it’s false news,” he said. “They are still in prison.”

The jailing of the seven, three officers and four soldiers, was announced only on April 10, a rare admission of guilt by armed forces accused by the international community of unleashing a scorched-earth campaign in northern Rakhine State last year that compelled around 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, for Bangladesh. The United Nations has called the military campaign “ethnic cleansing.”

 

The television network issued an apology for its piece, which had shown men emerging from a prison in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, and one of them shaking hands with a uniformed prison official. The network did not make clear what had happened, saying only that “further investigation” had revealed its information to be incorrect.

 

The seven men, whose identities have not been made public, were sentenced to 10 years in prison, for the extrajudicial killings in September of 10 Rohingya in the village of Inn Din, according to a military statement.

 

The news agency Reuters published an in-depth report on the Inn Din slaughter in February. U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, two local reporters for the agency who had investigated the killings, were detained late last year. They are now on trial for violating Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. The prisoner amnesty on Tuesday, which covered only those convicted of crimes, did not include their names.

 

U Min Tun Soe, the deputy director of Myanmar’s Prisons Department, confirmed that those convicted of crimes in Inn Din remained behind bars. “I don’t remember all their names,” he said, “but I can say these seven soldiers are still in Sittwe prison.” The seven men filmed exiting Sittwe prison, he added, had not been members of the military.

 

The amnesty on Tuesday was the first major one since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy took over Myanmar’s civilian administration two years ago. More than 8,000 prisoners were freed, many of them drug offenders or soldiers who had deserted.

 

President Win Myint — who holds the position because Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally precluded from taking the post — issued the pardons to coincide with Myanmar’s new year. The presidential pardon also included 36 political prisoners.

 

During her long years in political opposition, most of which she spent under house arrest, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned against the military government’s penchant for locking up dissidents. When she was released in 2010, she said her first priority would be to clear the country’s jails of political prisoners.

 

But since the National League for Democracy began sharing power with Myanmar’s military in 2016, the number of people charged with violating a harsh online defamation law has skyrocketed. Others have been jailed for unlawful association or under vague legislation criminalizing the circulation of information that could cause public disharmony.

More than 200 people engaged in political activity remain in jail or are awaiting trial, according to rights groups that monitor Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

 

“With the use and scope of repressive laws being increased rather than repealed, it seems that under the N.L.D. government, there is no end in sight to the scourge of political prisoners in Burma’s jails,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign U.K., a rights advocacy group.

 

 

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