By Bill O’Toole
October 9, 2014
Less than two weeks after being convicted of rioting in a Sittwe court, Muslim community leader U Kyaw Hla Aung was released under a presidential amnesty on October 7.
U Kyaw Hla Aung was arrested on July 15, 2013, following a clash in the Baw Du Pha IDP camp when a group of young Muslims refused to fill out an immigration department form that identified them as “Bengali”.
The situation escalated to the point where the youths allegedly attacked several immigration police.
Shortly afterward, U Kyaw Hla Aung was arrested and accused of inciting the group to attack the police. Many observers said the charges were directly related to U Kyaw Hla Aung’s longstanding political activism and legal assistance on behalf of detained Muslims in Rakhine State.
While 3073 prisoners were freed on October 7, Yangon-based attorney U Robert Sann Aung said U Kyaw Hla Aung was one of just a handful who could be described as a “political prisoner.”
News of his release was welcomed by both his family and local civil society groups that have taken up his case. However, all were quick to point out that the president’s pardon has done nothing to address the larger issue of human rights activists, including Muslims, being targeted for imprisonment and harassment.
During his incarceration, a wide array of international groups spoke out in support of the 74-year-old former lawyer. The former UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Quintana, even met U Kyaw Hla Aung in prison. He regularly called for him to be released from what he described as “arbitrary detention”.
However, local groups were more circumspect in their support. U Bo Gyi, a member of the Remaining Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, said he and other civilian members had been attempting to raise U Kyaw Hla Aung’s case but were told by government officials that the situation in Rakhine State was too “sensitive” for the committee to examine it.
Some groups dedicated to the rights of political prisoners were hesitant to take up U Kyaw Hla Aung’s case, U Bo Gyi said, because they consider the conflict in Rakhine State a religious rather than political conflict.
However, U Bo Gyi said that over the past 18 months there has been a growing acceptance that U Kyaw Hla Aung did not belong in prison.
“Not everyone agree to regard [U Kyaw Hla Aung] as a political prisoner but everyone agreed to regard him as a special case.”
He said he thought that the amnesty showed “the government feel confident about the [situation] in Arakan”, referring to Rakhine State by its former name.
While U Bo Gyi said he was “not surprised” that U Kyaw Hla Aung was chosen for release, he and other committee members had hoped it would occur through the scrutiny committee. He said they had also expected the amnesty to include many more political prisoners.
“We expected more, therefore we are really upset and frustrated,” said U Bo Gyi, adding that the committee has not met since July.
U Kyaw Hla Aung’s son, Ko Aung, said he believed his father’s pardon was a “political” tactic aimed at placating the international community without upsetting Rakhine nationalists.
He pointed out that when U Kyaw Hla Aung was sentenced to 18 months’ jail at the end of September, the judge included time already served, meaning his father only had three months left to serve.
Ko Aung said it was a tacit admission that the government was willing to release his father after holding him for more than a year.
Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, said even with the pardon U Kyaw Hla Aung’s legal troubles are not over.
“He was released with conditions, and his sentence can be reinstated if he’s charged with a subsequent offense, so in that sense this is not a true amnesty,” he said.
“That said, we are tremendously happy for Kyaw Hla Aung and his family. They’ve endured abuses for decades.”
When contacted by The Myanmar Times, U Kyaw Hla Aung said he was happy to be home but declined to comment out of concerns for the safety of himself and his family.