It is too soon to celebrate the recent prisoner amnesty in Myanmar as a serious indication of the junta’s intention to change its ways for the better.
On 17 November 2022, the State Administration Council (SAC) released four foreign citizens from jail and nearly 6,000 other prisoners in a mass amnesty to mark the 102nd anniversary of Myanmar’s National Day. National Day commemorates a 1920 boycott by Rangoon University students against the British colonial administration’s Rangoon University Act (1920). Many in Myanmar view this commemorative date as symbolising the beginning of Burma’s national struggle against colonial rule.
Prisoner amnesties on commemorative occasions have been a feature of both civilian administrations and military regimes in Myanmar. The 17 November amnesty was not the SAC’s first. Though international observers are well aware that such amnesties constitute part of the SAC’s political tactics, this recent amnesty still took most outsiders by surprise.
That surprise was mainly due to the release of high-profile detainees such as Professor Sean Turnell, who was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s special economic consultant, and former British Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman, a well-known advocate for responsible business and investment in Myanmar. That these two individuals possessed information that could be potentially damaging to military rule in Myanmar is no secret. In fact, Professor Turnell had been sentenced to a three-year term for violating the Official Secrets Act.
It was not just the international community that was surprised. The SAC’s move also perplexed some of its supporters. Since the 2021 coup, SAC supporters and military veterans have turned to the ‘Telegram’ messaging platform as an alternative to Facebook. Much of the pro-military, pro-SAC discussions take place on various Telegram channels. Posts and comments on these channels on the 17 November amnesty, however, apparently showed some negative views of the commander-in-chief’s decision. Some even accused the SAC of playing politics rather than behaving as soldiers should – which, in these commenters’ view, is to crush all dissent through all means necessary.
Past instances of the Myanmar military’s use of hostage diplomacy leave little doubt that this latest move was calculated to generate favourable views of the SAC. However, the supposed shift in the SAC’s strategy and the timing of the amnesty give pause to Myanmar observers, as Myanmar’s military regimes do not have a track record of responding with alacrity to international pressure. Changes in Myanmar’s political scene usually result from domestic rather than external pressures. Considering that the inner circle of SAC’s advisers remains unchanged, it may not be farfetched to believe that the SAC – through its advisers – may be taking new domestic variables into account. In essence, their actions since April 2021 are starting to hurt themselves.
If the SAC follows through and ceases the use of lethal force and disproportionate crackdowns against civilian populations, and releases more high-profile political prisoners, these actions together can potentially be considered as evidence of real intention to resolve the current conflict via dialogue and diplomacy, rather than force.
The amnesty, announced just days after the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits and related meetings concluded on 13 November, initially caused some speculation about whether international pressure was slowly having impact. As stated, it has been accepted practice for past civilian and military administrations to grant amnesties on commemorative dates. This year’s National Day (together with Independence Day, the Myanmar New Year, and even the commander-in-chief’s birthday) featured prisoner amnesties. Additionally, the SAC had been releasing other detainees, including the NLD-appointed election commission chairman, the NLD minister for finance, and some artistes, in the days and weeks prior to 17 November.
The 17 November amnesty is probably just one of the SAC’s initial moves in the larger process of convening an election sometime in 2023. The United States and Malaysia have openly stated that they will not support the SAC’s “sham election”. The Myanmar military’s “allies” however are inclined to view the 2023 election as a step towards normalising a military regime in Myanmar as a necessary part of a power transition. The majority of Myanmar people are likely to boycott the election, as many are already resisting the military for overturning the people’s vote in the 2020 election.
The international community may have ignored the significance of the SAC’s near-simultaneous conferring of honorary titles to many individuals, including former NLD government senior officials. The 2022 honorary lists fuel speculation that the SAC is buying or rewarding its supporters for upcoming domestic political schemes. The long list of awardees, published in the 18 November edition of the Myanmar-language Myanmar Alin Daily and the 20 November edition of The Mirror Daily, includes leaders of ethnic armed groups on good terms with the SAC, religious leaders of different faiths, SAC members, advisors and ministers, current and retired civil servants, the Russian Defence Minister and his deputy, and the Chairman of the Japan-Myanmar Association.
While the prisoner releases are welcome, the Myanmar military’s past behaviour is ample cause for caution and by no means should the international community see this as a breakthrough in diplomacy. Many key stakeholders remain locked up. Air-raids and other violence still devastates civilian communities in peripheral areas.
The 17 November release has raised expectations that future amnesties or releases may also include high-profile detainees. However, there has been no cessation of violence, which many expect the SAC to initiate as a first step to show its willingness to ‘cooperate’ in implementing ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus.
If the SAC follows through and ceases the use of lethal force and disproportionate crackdowns against civilian populations, and releases more high-profile political prisoners, these actions together can potentially be considered as evidence of real intention to resolve the current conflict via dialogue and diplomacy, rather than force. The international community needs to withhold its optimism instead of rushing to pat the Myanmar junta on the back.
Ye Khaung Oo was a Research Officer at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.