Myanmar protesters hold 'silence strike,' funeral held for child killed by security forces

Hundreds of people imprisoned for protesting last month's coup in Myanmar were released Wednesday in the first apparent gesture by the military to try to placate the protest movement.

Meanwhile, hundreds who have been arrested in recent weeks were released, including a journalist

A biker and a car are seen on an almost empty road in Yangon, Myanmar on Wednesday. Anti-coup protesters tried a new tactic that they dubbed a 'silence strike,' a day after a family said government forces shot and killed their seven-year-old daughter. (The Associated Press)

Hundreds of people imprisoned for protesting last month's coup in Myanmar were released Wednesday in the first apparent gesture by the military to try to placate the protest movement.

Witnesses outside Insein Prison in Yangon saw busloads of mostly young people looking happy, with some flashing the three-finger gesture of defiance adopted by the protest movement. State-run TV said a total of 628 were freed.

The prisoners appear to be the hundreds of students detained in early March while demonstrating against the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

One lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity because she doesn't want attention from the authorities, said all those released were arrested on March 3. She said only 55 people detained in connection with the protests remained in the prison, and it is likely they will all face charges under Section 505(A) of the Penal Code, which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison.

Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says it has confirmed the killings of 275 people in connection with the post-coup crackdown, with additional deaths still unverified. It also says that as of Tuesday, it had verified the arrest of or charges against 2,812 people, of whom 2,418 remain in custody or have outstanding charges.

An arrested protester flashes the three-fingered salute while on board a bus leaving Insein prison to go to an undisclosed location Wednesday in Yangon, Myanmar. (The Associated Press)

Demonstrators on Wednesday tried a new tactic that they dubbed a silence strike, calling on people to stay home and businesses to close for the day.

The extent of the strike was difficult to gauge, but social media users posted photos from cities and towns showing streets empty of activity save for the occasional stray dog.

The online meme posted to publicize the action called silence "the loudest scream" and explained its purpose was to honour the movement's fallen heroes, to recharge protesters' energy and to contradict the junta's claims that "everything is back to normal."

7-year-old girl shot

The new tactic was employed after an extended onslaught of violence from security forces.

Local media reported that a 7-year-old girl in Mandalay, the country's second-biggest city, was among the latest victims on Tuesday. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners included her in its list of fatalities.

"Khin Myo Chit was shot in the abdomen by a soldier while she sat in her father's lap inside her home in Aung Pin Le ward," the online news service Myanmar Now reported, quoting her sister, Aye Chan San.

Protesters detained by police during the anti-coup demonstrations react after being released at Tamwe township police station in Yangon. (Reuters)

The report said the shooting took place when soldiers were raiding homes in her family's neighbourhood. The sister said a soldier shot at their father when he denied that any people were hiding in their home, and hit the girl.
Aye Chan San said the soldiers then beat her 19-year-old brother with their rifle butts and took him away.

On Wednesday, her family held a funeral for the little girl, while her father spoke to Reuters about the events leading to her death.

"They shot her as she leaned toward my chest," said Hashin Bai. "I ran and was carrying her and could not even take a look at them [the security forces] after she was shot."

AP journalist freed, calls for release of peers

Meanwhile, Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested more than three weeks ago while covering a protest against the coup, was released from detention on Wednesday.

Thein Zaw, who was visibly thinner than before his detention, waved and smiled to photographers as he left Yangon's Insein Prison, notorious for decades for holding political prisoners.

He told the AP that the judge in his case announced at a court hearing that all charges against him were being dropped because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

"Thanks to all who tried so hard for my release," he said. "But one thing that upsets me is that there are some people who are still inside, and I hope that they can get out as soon as possible."

He also said he was looking forward to seeing his family, whom he was able to call after the hearing.

Associated Press photographer Thein Zaw smiles outside Insein prison in Yangon on Wednesday after being released with detainees who had been held for taking part in demonstrations against the military coup. (AFP/Getty Images)

Lawyer Tin Zar Oo said she cried and jumped for joy when the judge announced his release.

"I was so happy. Thein Zaw looked at me, and I was even at a loss for words when they asked me if I had anything to say," she said. "I hugged Thein Zaw, and we both cried with joy."

Thein Zaw had been charged with violating a public order law that carries a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment.

The AP and many press freedom organizations had called for the release of Thein Zaw and the other detained members of the press.

"The Associated Press is deeply relieved that AP journalist Thein Zaw has been freed from prison in Myanmar," said Ian Phillips, AP vice-president for international news. "Our relief is tempered by the fact that additional journalists there remain detained. We urge Myanmar to release all journalists and allow them to report freely and safely on what is happening inside the country."

Thein Zaw was one of nine media workers taken into custody during a Feb. 27 street protest in Yangon. About 40 journalists have been detained or charged since the Feb. 1 coup.

With files from Reuters