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Myanmar: Junta leader says over 5,000 anti-coup protesters to be freed

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By Euronews  with AFP, Reuters
In this Saturday, March 27, 2021 file photo, Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.
In this Saturday, March 27, 2021 file photo, Commander-in-Chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing presides over an army parade on Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/File

The leader of Myanmar's junta has said that more than 5,000 people are to be freed after being jailed for protesting against the army's coup in February.

General Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, said a total of 5,636 prisoners will be pardoned and released before the Buddhist festival of Thadingyut which begins on Tuesday.

He was speaking for the first time since being excluded by Myanmar's neighbours from the next ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit, which begins on Friday.

The junta leader did not give details of who would be included in the list and prison authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

More than 2,000 coup opponents held in various prisons across the country -- including local journalists arrested for criticising the crackdown -- had been freed by the end of June.

They did not include American journalist Danny Fenster, who has remained in Insein prison near Yangon since his arrest on May 24.

The February 1 military takeover put an end to a brief decade-long period of democracy in the country.

Since then, the army has carried out a bloody crackdown with more than 1,100 civilians killed and some 7,000 in detention, according to a local NGO -- the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners (AAPP) -- which reports cases of torture, rape and violence. extra-judicial executions.

ASEAN decided to exclude Min Aung Hlaing from its October 26-28 summit, in an unprecedented snub to the military leaders behind the coup. Instead, the bloc's foreign ministers agreed that a Burmese "non-political representative" would be invited in his place.

The exceptional measure was taken after the junta rejected requests to send a special representative to dialogue "with all stakeholders", including the former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Overthrown by the army in February, the 76-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner faces an array of legal cases that could earn her many years of imprisonment.

The ASEAN communiqué noted "insufficient progress" in the implementation of its five-point plan, adopted in April, designed to help restore dialogue in Myanmar and facilitate the arrival of humanitarian aid.

Myanmar's junta criticised the decision, accusing ASEAN of breaking the rule of non-interference in the internal politics of its member states.

Last week, Aung San's senior lawyer Suu Kyi said the junta had banned her from speaking to journalists, diplomats or international organisations.

The former leader's defence team was the sole source of information on her trial, which is being held behind closed doors. Aung San Suu Kyi has been called to testify for the first time on October 26.

Min Aung Hlaing did not mention the ASEAN decision to exclude him in his address, but suggested the outlawed National Unity Government (NUG) and armed ethnic groups were trying to sabotage the ASEAN-led peace process.

The NUG, an anti-coup alliance including several members of Suu Kyi's ousted ruling party, recently declared a nationwide rebellion against military rule.