The US State Department’s request that Myanmar release all political prisoners before the government changeover is easy to demand but daunting to achieve, according to a rights group.
Ko Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, said yesterday that Myanmar’s government structure may prevent both President U Thein Sein and National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from freeing certain prisoners.
“Military leaders and the Home Affairs minister will say this issue is directly related to security,” he said. “I am not so sure how a new government can convince military leaders.”
His scepticism came a day after US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with the president and called on him to release scores of imprisoned activists. The US office urged the move as a last hallmark of the president’s tenure. U Thein Sein has overseen the release of over 1000 political prisoners, at least in part due to hopes of bolstering the chances that US President Barack Obama would further ease sanctions, according to a State Department report.
In his first visit to the United Kingdom in July 2013, U Thein Sein pledged to release all political prisoners “by the end of the year”.
Despite the promise, the AAPP estimates that the government has actually arrested more citizens in the last two years. In 2014, the group reported around 25 political prisoners remained behind bars. The current report shows that figure has increased fivefold to include 128 political prisoners, with another 403 political prisoners awaiting trial. This increase in imprisoned human rights workers, journalists and students was the result of the administration’s harsh police crackdowns on protesters and activists, especially in the run-up to the election.
In a report released on January 17, Human Rights Watch identified several prominent cases of current political prisoners, including student leaders Ma Honey Oo and Ma Phyo Phyo Aung, who were arrested in March 2015 after protesting the National Education Bill. Interfaith activists Ko Zaw Zaw Latt and Ma Pwint Phyu Latt also remain in jail on charges of offenses under the Unlawful Associations Act after visiting the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army in 2013.
There is also the case of Phil Blackwell, a New Zealand citizen who was arrested and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 2014 for demeaning the image of the Buddha after posting to Facebook an advertisement for a cheap drinks night that depicted Buddha wearing headphones.
Former NLD information officer U Htin Lin Oo is still serving two years of hard labour after calling for religion not to be tainted by politics at an event in June 2015.
The NLD government-elect is set to take office at the end of March, and senior officials have pledged to ensure the release of all political prisoners. But because some of the remaining political prisoners are former military officers convicted on national security charges, Ko Bo Kyi said the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs may not budge on certain inmates’ terms.
“Some cases they already denied,” he said. “All this depends on the political will.”
Although Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party will have the ability to elect a president and both vice presidents, the military will retain control over the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Border Affairs as well as a 25 percent bloc of parliament.
For a prisoner such as former State Peace and Development Council officer U Win Naing Kyaw, release may be a long way off. He was arrested in 2010 and sentenced to death for releasing photographs of a high-ranking junta officer visiting North Korea. Though his sentence has since been commuted to life in prison, a perceived “security” threat would potentially stop the NLD from convincing the military ministries to release him.