Security personnel shot dead four inmates and wounded at least two others during a prison riot in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region that began on Wednesday, sparking unrest in at least a half dozen other jails across the country where prisoners live-streamed the protests and their demand that they be included in a recent presidential pardon, an inmate and officials said.
Those who participated in the riot at Shwebo Prison issued four demands, including an extension of the presidential amnesty to those still incarcerated, and meetings inside the facility with journalists and members of the Myanmar Human Rights Council.
President Win Myint pardoned more than 23,000 low-level offenders and two dozen political prisoners — including detained Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo — during three amnesties in April and May to mark the country’s Buddhist New Year.
A Shwebo inmate who declined to be named said prison officials deployed more than 200 guards and police officers around 2 p.m. Thursday, who used tear gas grenades to disperse the rioters and ordered those not involved to return to their living quarters.
“The authorities spoke to the inmates through loudspeakers,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They ordered inmates who were not part of the protest to go inside the residential building.”
Some of those who observed the riot recorded videos of the incident on their cell phones, then complied with the order to go back to their cells, the inmate said.
“[When] we took some videos of the scene and went back to our rooms, there were five or 10 rioters left downstairs, he said. “They shot both those rioters and the inmates who went inside the building. There were more than 200 security forces from both the police force and the Prison Department.”
“These 200 forces started shooting the inmates,” he said. “They also threw tear gas grenades into the inmates’ rooms. We were barely able to breath due to the smoke. They fired many gunshots.”
Bridger General Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesman, said a regiment of area soldiers stepped in to help prison authorities put down the riot.
“[M]ilitary forces from the Shwebo Regiment are taking care of Shwebo Prison security,” he said. “We are acting according to Articles 130 and 131 of the Criminal Procedure Code.”
“The law permits military forces to provide security for illegal assemblies of crowds, so local authorities requested our help,” he said. “We are now providing security from outside the prison.”
Commander Lay Soe of the Sagaing Region Police said his officers are now providing security to the correctional facility and government authorities are addressing the protest.
‘Situation under control’
Myint Naing, chief minister of Sagaing region, who visited the prison Thursday morning with the regional minister for security and border affairs, informed the media that the riot was now under control and authorities were reviewing the inmates’ demands.
“The situation is under control,” he said. “Because the prisoners resorted to violence, the prison suffered some damage.”
“We took notes on their demands and told them that we would send them to the president,” he said.
Myint Naing said he had instructed prison guards to confiscate all mobile phones from prisoners, the online version of the Yangon-based news magazine Frontier Myanmar reported.
In response to the riots, Win Myint’s office on Thursday issued a statement defending the decision to free some inmates but not others during the amnesties, saying that systematic evaluations of the prisoners were carried out in line with a selection policy.
“The release of prisoners [gave] priority to those with long-term sickness, the elderly, females, young people, and disabled persons,” it said.
The statement went on to say that in some prisons where riots occurred, inmates had broadcast live videos of the violence on social media via their mobile phones, leading officials to conclude that the incidents were “connected to one another and were provoked.”
Authorities will investigate the protests to determine who or what caused them, it said.
Yu Lwin Aung, a member of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, said that no one person likely had caused the prison riots.
“I don’t think there is a mastermind behind the riots,” he said. “The riots occurred because of the anger of prisoners who were not released during amnesties, and it is normal.”
But Yu Lwin Aung agreed with officials that video clips of the protests should not have been posted to Facebook.
“Prisoners are not allowed to use cell phones,” he said. “They are not only using phones, but also using Facebook. This means that the administrative mechanism in the prisons is broken.”
The day after the president’s third prisoner amnesty on Tuesday, inmates at Sagaing’s Maw Lite Kalay Prison and Hpa-An Prison in Kayin state rioted on Wednesday, while some of those incarcerated in Tharyarwaddy Prison in Bago region, Myitkyina Prison in Kachin state, Pathein Prison in Ayeyarwady region, and Dawei Prison in Tanintharyi region staged protests on Thursday, the statement by the president’s office said.
The Myitkyina Prison protest began around 5 a.m. with prisoners issuing the same four demands as those at Shwebo Prison, sources said.
Police entered the jail six hours later while friends and families of the inmates who gathered outside called for them not to use violence against the protesters.
Though authorities said around 2 p.m. that they had brought the situation under control and asked those outside to leave, an RFA reporter could still hear chanting and shouting by the protesters inside the prison for the next two and a half hours.
More than 300 inmates from halls Nos. 1 and 2 at Pathein Prison started shouting demands around 11:30 a.m. Thursday, but the disturbance died down by noon, said Colonel Tun Shwe of the Ayeyarwady Region Police.
The military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the Myanmar Prisons Department, referred calls to that agency for comment, but RFA could not reach deputy director and spokesman Min Tun Soe. The department has yet to issue any statements about the prison riots.
Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, criticized inmates for causing the disturbances.
“I don’t think prisoners should make the situation difficult when the president has granted amnesties with goodwill,” he said. “They have the right to submit their demands through the prison chief to top-level authorities in a step-by-step process. No prisoners will ever be released by causing riots. It’s impossible.”
Reported by Khin Khin Ei, Aung Thein Kha, and Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.