Myanmar junta frees over 600 protesters a day after soldiers kill 7-year-old girl in her own home

Seven-year-old Khin Myo Chit died of bullet wounds after she was shot at her home. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) - Myanmar on Wednesday (March 24) freed more than 600 people detained in anti-junta protests, a senior prison official told AFP.

It comes as many businesses in Yangon remained shut and streets were deserted after anti-coup activists called for silent strike, a day after a seven-year-old girl was killed in her home when security forces opened fire during a crackdown in Mandalay.

"We released 360 men and 268 women from Insein prison today," a senior official from the jail told AFP, on condition of anonymity.

Several buses full of prisoners drove out of the prison in Yangon in the morning, said witnesses, who included lawyers for some inmates.

"All the released are the ones arrested due to the protests, as well as night arrests or those who were out to buy something," said a member of a legal advisory group, who said he saw around 15 buses leaving.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 2,000 people have been arrested in the military crackdown on the protests against the Feb 1 military coup.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that among those freed was AP journalist Thein Zaw, who was arrested last month. AP cited him as saying the judge had dropped the charges because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

Few vehicles were seen on the road in the country's biggest city, witnesses said, after the call by pro-democracy activists for the silent strike.

"No going out, no shops, no working. All shut down. Just for one day," illustrator and activist Nobel Aung told Reuters.

"The usual meat and vegetables vendors on the street didn't show up," said a resident of the city's Mayangone district. "No car noises, only birds."

A teacher in the Kyauktada district said the roads were deserted.

"There aren't many people in the streets, only water delivery men," the resident said.

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Myanmar's junta freed hundreds of demonstrators arrested during its brutal crackdown on protests on Wednesday (Mar 24), while many businesses in Yangon remained shut and streets were deserted after anti-coup activists called for a silent strike.

The strike comes a day after staff at a funeral service in Mandalay told Reuters that a seven-year-old girl had died of bullet wounds in the city - the youngest of about 275 people killed so far in the crackdown, according to the AAPP.

The shooting death of the girl, Khin Myo Chit, in her own home triggered fresh outrage at the country's military crackdown.

Soldiers shot at her father but hit the girl who was sitting on his lap inside their home, her sister told the Myanmar Now media outlet. Two men were also killed in the district, it said.

Closed business establishments during a silent strike and protest against the military coup in Mandalay on March 24, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The military had no immediate comment on the incident.

In what has now often become a deadly game of cat and mouse with security forces during street protests, pro-democracy activists switched tactics and planned to hold a silent strike on Wednesday.

"No going out, no shops, no working. All shut down. Just for one day," illustrator and activist Nobel Aung told Reuters.

Social media posts and media indicated a range of businesses from ride-hailers to pharmacies planned to close.

The junta has faced international condemnation for staging the coup that halted Myanmar's slow transition to democracy and for its lethal suppression of the protests that followed.

It has tried to justify the takeover by saying that a Nov 8 election won by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) was fraudulent - an accusation that the electoral commission has rejected.

Military leaders have promised a new election but have not set a date and have declared a state of emergency.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Tuesday that 164 protesters had been killed and expressed sadness at the deaths, a day after the European Union and the United States imposed more sanctions on groups or individuals linked to the coup.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group says at least 275 people have been killed in the security forces' crackdown.

Mr Zaw Min Tun blamed the bloodshed on the protesters and said nine members of the security forces had also been killed.

He said strikes as well as hospitals not fully operating had caused deaths, including from Covid-19, calling them "undutiful and unethical".

People mourning at the funeral of a protester who was shot, in Yangon on March 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Opponents of military rule have regularly called for strikes and also a civil disobedience campaign, including among civil servants, that has paralysed parts of the economy.

The junta spokesman also accused the media of "fake news" and fanning unrest and said reporters could be prosecuted if they were in contact with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, as the remnants of Ms Suu Kyi's government is known.

The military has declared the group an illegal organisation and said membership is punishable by death.

He also gave details that he said showed how the NLD had created hundreds or even thousands of extra ballots by inventing voters, including in Ms Suu Kyi's own constituency.

The NLD has denied making any attempt to rig the election.

Also shown at the junta news conference was video testimony of former Yangon chief minister Phyo Min Thein saying he visited Ms Suu Kyi multiple times and gave her money "whenever needed".

Ms Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup and faces charges that her lawyer says have been cooked up to discredit her.

The ousted leader was due to appear for a court hearing via video conferencing on Wednesday after a previous hearing had to be adjourned due to Internet problems.

However Wednesday's hearing was postponed to April 1, an aide to her lawyer said, marking the second successive postponement in her case.

Ms Suu Kyi who was arrested the same day the military seized power in Myanmar on Feb 1, faces charges that include illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols. The military has also accused her of bribery in two recent televised news conferences.

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