On Saturday, Myanmar’s military council announced an amnesty for more than 800 prisoners in celebration of the country’s Union Day, as it staged a show of force in the capital.
The country has been in turmoil since a coup last year, with mass protests and a subsequent military crackdown that has killed more than 1,500 civilians, according to the United Nations human rights office.
State media said junta chief Min Aung Hlaing had issued a “pardon order” – a regular feature of major holidays in the country – for 814 prisoners to mark the 75th anniversary of Union Day.
Military council spokesman Zaw Min Tun told AFP that most of those granted the amnesty will be from prisons in Yangon, the commercial hub.
He did not say whether detained Australian academic Sean Tornell – who has been in custody for more than a year – would be among those released.
Tornell, an Australian economics professor, was working as an advisor to ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi when he was arrested last February, just days after a military coup.
He has been charged with violating Myanmar’s official secrets law and faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison if found guilty.
The military council released about 23,000 prisoners last April, and some rights groups at the time feared that the move would make room for the army’s opponents and cause chaos.
A similar number was released on Union Day last year as well.
About two dozen people gathered outside the colonial era Insein Prison in Yangon on Saturday morning in the hope of being reunited with their loved ones, some carrying umbrellas against the sun.
Dao Luen Luen Mo said she was waiting for her 19-year-old daughter, who was arrested for incitement against the military last year.
“She has been in prison for 11 months,” she told AFP.
Dao Khin was returning to Insein after her 18-year-old son was excluded from an earlier amnesty issued in October.
“I have one son and I am happy and I hope to see him today,” she said.
The junta marked Union Day with a show of force in the military-built capital, Naypyidaw, known for its wide and often empty streets.
Hundreds of soldiers paraded alongside civil servants waving national flags in unison, and troupes performed ballroom dances.
Helicopters carrying yellow, green and red country flags hovered overhead, followed by helicopters carrying the same colors in the smoke.
Myanmar independent analyst David Matheson described the show as “performance art”.
“The message for Union Day is totally against the reality of Myanmar,” he told AFP, adding that the junta was not sincere about peace.
“It is absurd that on the 75th anniversary of Union Day, the country is more divided than at any time in its history.”
In a speech to the troops, Min Aung Hlaing reiterated the military’s claim of widespread fraud in the 2020 elections won by Suu Kyi’s party.
He also called on the myriad ethnic armed organizations that have been fighting the Myanmar military – and each other – for decades to participate in the peace talks.
In an announcement carried by state media, he said the junta would also halt the ongoing “criminal proceedings” against members of the Arakan Army in Rakhine State, which has fought a years-long war for the self-rule of Rakhine residents.
Struggling to contain the backlash and face daily clashes, parts of the country are under the control of anti-coup fighters.
An anti-junta group told local media it was behind an explosion in Naypyidaw, hours before the Union Day celebrations began. AFP was unable to confirm the reports.