Relatives gather around a bus carrying prisoners to be released outside Insein Prison in Yangon on Saturday. AFP
Myanmar typically grants an annual amnesty to thousands of prisoners to mark its traditional Buddhist New Year holiday — which in previous years have been joyous affairs with city-wide water fights.
But this year, with the military back in power after ousting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, anti-coup activists have used the holiday as an opportunity to protest the growing death toll and mass arrests.
It remains unclear whether anti-junta protesters or journalists jailed covering the coup will be among those freed.
Relatives wait outside as prisoners (right) are released from a gate outside Insein Prison in Yangon on Saturday. AFP
A prison official told AFP on condition of anonymity that jails across the country will start freeing more than 23,000 people on Saturday.
"We will release more than 800 prisoners from Insein prison" in commercial hub Yangon, he added, declining to elaborate.
In February, the junta released a similar number of prisoners, with some rights groups at the time fearing the move was to free up space for opponents of the military as well as cause chaos in communities.
On Wednesday a rebel group executed a man who had been freed in that amnesty, who it said had subsequently raped and killed a five-year-old girl.
Just before Armed Forces Day, the regime also freed around 900 jailed demonstrators.
But since the February 1 coup, more than 3,100 people -- the bulk of them anti-coup protesters and activists -- have been detained, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Newly-released prisoners walk out of Insein Prison in Yangon on Saturday. AFP
The junta has issued nightly arrest warrants on state-run media, targeting celebrities, influencers, journalists and prominent activists with large social media followings.
By Friday night, they totalled 380.
Some 80 doctors have also been named as wanted fugitives for attempting to "deteriorate peace and stability".
Myanmar's healthcare workers have been at the forefront of a nationwide civil disobedience movement, refusing to return to work under a military regime. Their absence has left many of the country's hospitals unstaffed during the pandemic.
The country has been under the junta's control for 11 weeks.
The military has consistently justified the putsch by alleging widespread fraud in November's elections, which Suu Kyi's party had won in a landslide.
Activists urged people this year to stage symbolic protests from the start of the holiday on Tuesday, including by painting a three-finger salute used by demonstrators on traditional Thingyan pots filled with flowers, which are typically displayed at this time.
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The agile hands of men who once worked as pickpockets, hit men and drug traffickers are these days dedicated to a much more docile task: Cutting and sewing fabrics to create fashionable clothes at a workshop in the prison where they are serving time.
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A number of princes, senior Ulema, governors, government officials and inherit custodians of the house, also took part in the regular tradition.