Student protesters released, but many remain behind bars

The Myanmar military on Wednesday 24 March suddenly and without explanation released from Yangon’s Insein Prison 628 students and others who had protested against the military coup of 1 February.

More than 300 university students arrested during a peaceful strike in Tamwe, Yangon, on 3 March were among those released, said lawyers who obtained the lists of student detainees from the University of Yangon.

On their way home, the released students raised the three-finger salute, a symbol of anti-junta resistance.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), 394 prisoners across Myanmar had been released during the weeks up to 23 March, including many students, of whom 100 were medical students after medical universities intervened on their behalf.

But 628 were released in one day on Wednesday 24 March, the day after a seven-year-old girl was shot and killed triggering a ‘silent strike’ in which people across Myanmar stayed at home. Most of the 628 released were students.

However, more than 2,000 protesters are still detained, sentenced or face outstanding warrants, AAPP said, adding that, as of 25 March, 320 people were confirmed killed since the 1 February coup and a total of 2,981 people had been arrested, charged or sentenced in relation to opposition to the coup.

The United States-based Scholars at Risk rights network, in an open letter on 25 March, called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to help secure the release of imprisoned students, scholars and other political prisoners.

A member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) told University World News that ABFSU members were not among those released on Wednesday. “Their main target for arrest is student leaders, political activists and people who join the civil disobedience movement,” he noted.

No prior notice

A prosecutor at the Supreme Court told University World News there was no prior indication of the releases on 24 March, and the students did not seem to know why they were let go.

“They were released on bail. Before the students were released, they were held separately in a small room in Insein Prison,” he said, adding that they were given a lecture to dissuade them from involvement in the civil disobedience movement and made to promise not to protest again.

The prosecutor said many students were still in prisons, most of them student leaders and young activists. “It is difficult to get a case heard in court now due to the large numbers of defendants. That’s why a special tribunal will be set up in Insein Prison. We are waiting for their court appointments while they are remanded in Insein Prison.”

Most of those remaining in Insein face charges under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code of ‘defamation’ of the military junta, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

A group of around 20 lawyers formed a ‘Your Legal Adviser’ group in the second week of March to provide legal assistance to those arrested for participation in protests.

One of them told University World News that family members have a legal right to know how long detainees will be held in custody. Defendants’ lawyers also have the legal right to object if police hold detainees for an extra day. They are only allowed to hold people without charge for 24 hours.

If there is an objection, the court should consider whether to impose a restraining order on police, he said.

“We should know when they will be released, according to rules and regulations. However, we are under the control of the military council now and we have to monitor what they are going to do as they have the right to make or amend the laws and detain people,” he said.

Releases followed ‘silent strike’

The mass release of students and other protesters came after the so-called ‘silent strike’, when people stayed at home. The ‘silence is the loudest cry’ actions were held across Myanmar on Wednesday after a seven-year-old girl – the youngest victim of the military’s violent crackdown so far – was shot and killed on Tuesday by military forces while she was sitting on her father’s lap at their house in Mandalay.

That night, the military announced over loudspeakers that the country was in a “stable” condition under no danger and that people should carry on their daily lives as usual.

During the silent strike most shops, shopping centres and small local markets stayed closed and no cars or people were seen on the streets. At the same time, the military junta released the students and protesters.

Students still in prison

A young activist released on Wednesday told University World News that all the students’ and protesters’ phones were kept by the military when they were arrested and they did not know when they would get them back.

She also said they were not allowed to talk about their time in prison. “If we talk about our stay in prison, the people left behind [in prisons] will not be safe as the military could order greater oppression by prison authorities,” she said.

More than 300 students were released from Yangon’s Insein Prison on 24 March and more than 30 students from Mandalay, who were arrested on 7 March, were released on 23 March.

According to a graduate student released from Mandalay Prison, most students and graduates were released. Only student leaders over 35 years old and people who have not finished their education were not included in the release list, she told University World News.

She said the day before their release they were taken to Mandalay Palace, a major sightseeing spot occupied by military troops since the coup.

“They let us visit the palace and wander around. Then they made us watch a presentation on why they had to take over the country and how Aung San Suu Kyi was bribed. Then they asked us to act in a video explaining why we shouldn’t be involved in CDM [the civil disobedience movement] and should not be protesting,” she said, referring to charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who was arrested on the day of the coup, along with other NLD leaders.

Suu Kyi is currently being held on charges of using illegal (walkie talkie) equipment and causing ‘fear and alarm’. On 18 March new anti-corruption charges were added, allegedly for using charity funds ‘for personal gain’. Her legal team says she has denied wrongdoing and says all the charges were politically motivated.

At least 286 people have been killed since the coup and the actual number of casualties is likely much higher, according to AAPP. The military forces have been raiding, destroying public property, arresting people and shooting every day and night.

Despite international condemnation against the taking of innocent lives, the military continues with crimes against humanity, brutally arresting children, and removing dead bodies. “While the number of deaths is increasing, demonstrations against the junta won't decrease,” a final-year medical student told University World News.

After Myanmar was silent for one day, thousands of students and protesters across Myanmar came out to protest against the junta on Thursday.

International plea

In an open letter on 25 March to the president of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Nazhat Shameem Khan, Scholars at Risk (SAR) expressed grave concern over the widespread human rights violations by Myanmar’s military and police since the coup.

SAR urged the Human Rights Council to take all reasonable steps to “secure an end to actions by Myanmar’s military and police that restrict or punish peaceful protests; secure the release of imprisoned students, scholars and other political prisoners; restore civilian-led government and the rule of law; and protect and promote fundamental human rights, including academic freedom in Myanmar.”

In the letter, SAR noted that Myanmar’s military and police had been raiding and occupying university campuses, as reported by University World News, which, beyond gaining strategic footholds, indicated “a clear effort to exercise control over Myanmar’s higher education community and violently quash dissent by students, scholars and other members of the campus community who have participated in protests”.