Following the decision by the Burmese government to release over 500 prisoners this week, including a number of political prisoners, activists are calling for all political prisoners remaining in detention to be released.
The government released 514 prisoners as part of the amnesty, and according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 88 of these were political prisoners. However, large numbers are still languishing in Burmese jails according to rights organisations.
The exact number of political prisoners remaining in detention is unknown, but various groups report that the number could be anything between 80 and 220.
The President stated that the amnesty had been declared on “humanitarian grounds,” saying that the move is in aid of “prolonging friendships with neighbouring countries.”
The decision coincided with the upcoming visit of President Thein Sein to the US, prompting some groups to describe it as a tactic to improve Burma’s relationship with the US and reduce sanctions imposed by the American government.
Many of the political prisoners were arrested for their use of the internet, attending banned meetings and forming illegal organisations, and their detention is part of an ongoing crackdown on media freedom in a country ranked 169th of 179 countries on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
Min Ko Naing, leader of the 88 Generation Students, many of whom were under detention as political prisoners, said: “We are happy to hear there are more than 80 political prisoners, including those serving lengthy sentences, are among the released. However, there is a larger number remaining behind bars and we are sad for them.”
Western Governments call for release of all political prisoners
Foreign governments welcomed the amnesty, but repeated calls for all political prisoners to be released from prison and for structures to be introduced to ensure the fair treatment of former prisoners.
The US state department reiterated its call for the release of all political prisoners in a statement: “We are watching developments of the prisoner release closely and will work carefully to verify if any political prisoners are released. The United States continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.”
“Lack of Transparency”
While rights groups have welcomed the release of the prisoners, there is a general consensus that more needs to be done to protect freedom of expression in Burma, and that this amnesty represents something of a smokescreen.
The Burma Campaign UK has described the releases as a public relations exercise as opposed to an indication of true reform, and has called on the government to commit to reforms and release all political prisoners.
“These days the international community always takes the most positive view of what President Thein Sein does, but if you look at it from the other side, while Thein Sein decided to release some political prisoners, he also made a decision to keep most political prisoners in jail,” said campaigns officer at Burma Campaign UK, Wai Hnin Pwint Thon.
“For the sake of hundreds of prisoners suffering in appalling conditions, we need to move on from this slow pace of releases. An independent commission should be set up, with UN support, which can identify all those in jail for political reasons, and ensure they are released immediately.”
“President Thein Sein claims to be a reformer, but 18 months after becoming President there are still hundreds of political prisoners, and he has not abolished any of the laws which were used to arrest and jail them,” said Thon, adding “these releases are not about reform, they are about providing a fig leaf for President Obama for him to justify lifting more sanctions, despite the fact that Burma is still not a democracy and still has one of the worst human rights records in the world.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also said that the releases do not represent a satisfactory commitment to addressing the violations of rights which have taken place in Burma.
“All political prisoner releases are good news, but until there is independent monitoring of Burma’s prisons, it won’t be known how many political prisoners still remain behind bars,” said deputy director of the Asian division of HRW Phil Robertson, adding “donor governments need to press President Thein Sein in New York to release all political prisoners and allow international monitors into the prisons.”
“The problem is there is a lack of transparency from the Burma government about who is a political prisoner, where they are, and how many are left,” he added.
Monitoring system needed
HRW also urged the government to support the establishment of a joint international and local monitoring system to ascertain which prisoners are political prisoners and are imprisoned merely for excercising their human rights.
The group suggested that this could be comprised of United Nations agency staff, international and national NGO’s; the Myanmar Attorney General’s Office; other government ministries, and former political prisoners, as well as members of the national parliament and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.
“Burma's political prisoners find that when they are freed they are still not really free,” said Robertson.
“The authorities should drop all restrictions on their movement and education, and help them rebuild the lives that the government has so cruelly and unjustly deprived them of,” he urged.
Source: DCMF, HRW