YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar began releasing more than 9,000 prisoners on Wednesday, with many drug offenders among the first to walk free, but just two political detainees, after the president declared an amnesty on the first day of the traditional New Year.
President Win Myint said 9,535 local prisoners, and 16 foreigners, had been pardoned in a gesture designed “for the peace and pleasure of the people, and taking into consideration humanitarian concerns”.
Authorities were scrutinising who should be pardoned among the rest, he said in a statement on his Facebook page, without elaborating.
Myanmar regularly orders such releases from its overcrowded prisons to mark the holiday.
Dozens of people waited in sweltering heat for hours at the gates of Insein prison, the colonial-era jail on the outskirts of the commercial capital of Yangon, hoping their relatives would be among those pardoned.
Under the setting sun, prisoners began to trickle through the gates as crowds cheered and waved green Eugenia leaves, symbols of good fortune.
Many of those released said they had been convicted on drugs charges, some receiving long sentences for possession of small quantities of banned substances.
“There are too many people who should be released inside the prison,” said 33-year-old Paik Paik, who said she served four years of a seven-year sentence, some of them spent breaking rocks at a labour camp separated from her children, after she was arrested with two methamphetamine pills.
“The punishment does not fit the crime,” she added.
Two Reuters reporters jailed for breaking the Official Secrets Act were not among those being pardoned, a senior official at Insein, where they are being held, told Reuters.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party came to power in 2016 promising to free political prisoners from jails across the country, but activists say they continue to be imprisoned.
In the past week, a filmmaker accused of defaming the military was denied bail and sent to Insein, while several satirical poets were charged with online defamation for broadcasting a New Year performance critical of the army.
Two political prisoners, of a total of 364, were released on Wednesday, said Aung Myo Kyaw of a human rights group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Maran Gam and Zau La, members of an ethnic armed group, were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000 on drug trafficking charges. Activists said the military invited them to a meeting and arrested them when they arrived.
Among the political prisoners behind bars or facing trial are people accused of criticising the army and ethnic minority activists jailed after protesting against war between government forces and minority insurgents.
It was not immediately clear if there would be further releases later. A government spokesman did not answer telephone calls from Reuters to seek comment, while a spokesman for the ruling party said he did not know.
(The story was refiled to correct the number of freed prisoners in paragraph 2)
Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Additional reporting by Sam Aung Moon; Writing by Poppy McPherson; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez