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As international focus shifts, political prisoners fall by wayside

By Myanmar Times
On July 15, 2013

One year ago this week – President U Thein Sein stood next to David Cameron in London and told reporters, “By the end of the year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.”

A member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) looks through prisoner records on July 10. (Yu Yu/The Myanmar Times)A member of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) looks through prisoner records on July 10. (Yu Yu/The Myanmar Times)

He touted his newly formed Remaining Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee as the mechanism to achieve this aim. The committee, he said, would review the cases of all “prisoners of conscience” and make recommendations for their release.

One year later, dozens of democracy activists sit in jail for non-violent political offences, while hundreds of others have been arrested on spurious criminal charges linked to political activities. Since January, there have been few prisoners released and the review committee appears powerless to resolve the ongoing incarceration of people for political activities.

Frustrated by official indifference to the fate of remaining prisoners, civilian members on the committee are now ready to speak out. A number have told The Myanmar Times that they are disillusioned with the process and their role; one said they have simply been “wasting time and energy” on the issue.

U Ye Aung, a committee member who is also from the Former Political Prisoner Society (FPPS), told The Myanmar Times that when he was invited to join the committee in March of last year, he was “happy to cooperate”.

He and other former political prisoners on the committee felt that high-profile cooperation between the new government and democratic opposition could serve as a model to tackle other contentious issues.

“We participated in this because we hoped by working together we could make trust,” said U Bo Kyi, a member of the committee and head of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). “If we got a good result it could be an example for other sectors … but we did not get a good result.”

The limitations of the committee became apparent within months, they said. Civilian members did not have access to legal documents and were barred from interviewing prisoners. The committee also had no formal role in the release process; it only made recommendations for the President’s Office to consider.

“Our committee doesn’t have a function. We have no mechanism to scrutinise the political prisoners,” U Ye Aung said.

U Bo Kyi expressed similar frustrations. “We should have the right to investigate [to get] more detailed information … But now we do not have such kind of rights. Right now it’s difficult to work.”

Both activists told The Myanmar Times they had raised the issue of unfair detentions in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states only to be told the conflicts were “too sensitive” for the committee to weigh in.

While they applauded U Thein Sein for ordering several large-scale amnesties in 2013, they, like many observers, argue that they were more about placating the international community.

“The UK, US and rest of the international community made a tactical mistake by treating President Thein Sein’s promise as meaning the problem was solved, and relaxed pressure, rather than applying pressure to make sure he kept his promise,” said Ma Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, a London-based campaigns officer for Burma Campaign UK. “It is now clear that the issue of political prisoners will remain in Burma for years to come.”

Most worryingly, the government has done little to address the policies that put people in prison for political activities in the first place. These include not just unfair or autocratic laws, but reprimanding those who apply them incorrectly.

Ko Aung, the son of a political prisoner in Sittwe Prison, U Kyaw Hla Aung, said there are many powerful factions within both the national and regional governments that want to silence activists like his father.

“There are still many small dictators who are not satisfied with the release of all such prisoners,” he said last week.

Ko Aung said that in recent years police based in Rakhine State have regularly arrested and detained Muslim activists and community on orders from local nationalist groups. The practice has also been documented by a number of human rights groups studying the region.

Minister for the President’s Office U Soe Thein, who heads the prisoner release committee, did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week. The government has previously stated that the president achieved his promise of releasing all political prisoners by the end of last year. With little international pressure to ensure no more people are jailed for political activities, it appears to have lost interest in the issue completely following a series of very visible amnesties between 2011 and 2013.

While the committee held monthly meetings in 2013, there have been only two meetings so far this year. On both occasions, the meetings only took place after the FPPS and the AAPP made repeated requests to U Soe Thein.

Even then, U Ye Aung and U Bo Kyi said few of the committee’s government representatives, including those from the Ministry of Home Affairs, attended the meetings.

“We think the government has lost interest in this issue,” said U Ye Aung.

U Bo Gyi agreed. “I’m bored of requesting meetings … We’re wasting time and energy. I am out of patience.”

While the AAPP and the FPPS have slightly different figures on the number of political prisoners in Myanmar’s jails, both say the number has increased since the beginning of the year.

They say the committee will only be relevant if it is granted real authority and made completely independent of the government. But more than anything, the government and parliament must take swift action to change the laws and policies that create political prisoners in the first place.

“It’s not just about the numbers,” said U Bo Kyi. “It’s about freedom of expression in our social and political lives. As long as there are still arbitrary arrests, as long as police use torture [during interrogations], the issue of political prisoners will not be over.”