Sunday, August 20, 2017

Amnesty push promised ahead of vote

All political prisoners, including students and activists arrested in the Letpadan crackdown, could be released under an amnesty before the November 8 elections, following an agreement reached with armed ethnic groups that signed last week’s ceasefire agreement.

U Aung Min, government minister and chief negotiator in the ceasefire negotiations, told leaders of armed ethnic groups in Nay Pyi Taw that President U Thein Sein would grant an amnesty, U Khun Myint Tun, chair of the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO), told The Myanmar Times yesterday.

The eight ethnic armed groups that signed the ceasefire agreement released a statement on October 18 calling on the government to free all political prisoners immediately.

“All eight groups want the release of all political prisoners. We believe that the government will release the political prisoners before the general election. U Aung Min promised to us that he will submit our request to the president,” U Khun Tun Myint said, making clear that the minister had assured them the prisoners would be freed.

According to the ceasefire agreement, an amnesty would cover only combatants of the armed ethnic groups and others who are jailed under the Unlawful Association Act. The eight groups were taken off the government’s blacklist of illegal organisations shortly before the signing ceremony.

U Tate Naing, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said yesterday that the government should release former members of the eight ethnic forces even if not all political prisoners were released at the same time.

“Now, the government signed the NCA [nationwide ceasefire agreement] with eight armed groups so they need to release their troops from jails. If not, the future of the Myanmar peace process will be affected,” he said.

“The government should release them immediately.”

The definition of political prisoner is highly controversial, however. Those to be released are reported to include three members of a notorious death squad of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front who are accused of torturing and executing fellow students between 1991 and 1992 while the movement was fighting government forces on the border.

Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) leader Lieutenant General Yawd Serk told The Myanmar Times that they heard that the government planned to release the three former student fighters, including then ABSDF lieutenant U Than Chaung.

U Tin Maung Oo, a member of the Former Political Prisoner Society (FPPS), said that the government had not responded to their open letter to release all political prisoners before the election, but that the society remained hopeful the president would announce an amnesty.

“We heard that the political prisoners would be released in recent weeks but the president did not announce that. If the president announced the amnesty after the election, citizens and international organisations would praise the government,” he said.

A source close to the peace process, who asked not to be named, confirmed that U Aung Min had made the promise of an amnesty for political prisoners during a meeting with the armed groups that signed the ceasefire. Only the president has the consitutional power to grant the amnesty, however.

U Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, declined to comment on the prospects for an amnesty ahead of the election.

According to latest figures compiled by the AAPP and the FPPS, there are currently 97 political prisoners, some of whom were not released under a previous amnesty, and 468 others who are on trial for political offences.

Fifty students and activists are in prison facing trial under colonial-era laws on peaceful assembly following the police crackdown on protests against the national education law in Letpadan in March.