Myanmar military marks 75th Union Day, announces prisoner amnesty

Myanmar’s military government has announced an amnesty for more than 800 prisoners to mark the country’s Union Day, as it held a parade in a show of force in the capital.

Hundreds of troops paraded on Saturday alongside civil servants waving national flags in unison with troupes performing choreographed dances.

The celebration comes as the country has been gripped by turmoil since last year when the military seized power, deposing democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The power grab triggered protests and a mass disobedience movement which was met with a violent crackdown by the security forces.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a non-profit that has been tracking the unrest, estimated that more than 1,500 people have been killed.

The military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, issued the “pardon order”, a regular feature of major holidays in the country, for 814 prisoners to commemorate Union Day’s 75th anniversary, state media said.

Those given amnesty will be mostly from prisons in commercial hub Yangon, military government spokesman Zaw Min Tun told the AFP news agency.

He did not say whether Australian academic Sean Turnell, who has been detained for more than a year, would be among those released.

Turnell, an Australian economics professor, was working as an adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested last February, just days after the military coup. He has been charged with violating Myanmar’s official secrets law and faces a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison if found guilty.

The military government released about 23,000 prisoners last April, with some rights groups at the time fearing the move was to free up space for opponents of the military and cause chaos. A similar number were released on last year’s Union Day as well.

‘Performance art’

Independent Myanmar analyst David Mathieson characterised the parade as “performance art”.

“The message for Union Day is at complete odds with the reality that is Myanmar,” he told AFP, adding the military government was not sincere about peace.

“It’s pretty absurd that on the 75th anniversary of Union Day the country is more divided than at any point in its history.”

In a speech to troops, Min Aung Hlaing repeated the military’s claim of massive fraud in the 2020 elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. He also invited the myriad ethnic armed organisations that have been fighting Myanmar’s military, and each other, for decades to sit for peace talks.

In an announcement carried by state media, he said the military government would also halt ongoing “criminal proceedings” against members of Rakhine state’s Arakan Army, which for years has fought a war for autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine population.

Struggling to contain the backlash and contending with daily clashes, swaths of the country are under the control of anti-coup fighters.

An anti-coup group told local media it was behind an explosion in Naypyidaw hours before Union Day celebrations were due to start.

About two dozen people gathered outside Yangon’s colonial-era Insein prison on Saturday morning hoping to be reunited with loved ones, some holding umbrellas against the sun.

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