Sunday, August 20, 2017

Demands ramp up for fuller political prisoner release

The outgoing government’s last-ditch attempt last week to make good on pledges to release all political prisoners fell well short of the aim, according to international rights groups.

Newly released land activists protest at Insein prison for the release of all political prisoners. Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon / The Myanmar TimesNewly released land activists protest at Insein prison for the release of all political prisoners. Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon / The Myanmar Times

While the presidential amnesty announced on January 22 provides for the release of 102 inmates, just 52 of them are political prisoners, according to monitoring groups. Unless more pardons are immediately extended, President U Thein Sein will end his term with over 90 political prisoners behind bars and at least 408 still awaiting trial, by the Former Political Prisoners Society’s count.

“We appreciate the amnesties granted, but we are not satisfied until all other political prisoners are released,” said U Tun Kyi, a member of the FPPS.

“The government considers the political prisoners hostages and they will not release them if there is no political benefit,” he said.

Just days before the President’s Office announced the amnesty at the start of the World Buddhist Peace Conference in Sagaing, a senior US official visiting Nay Pyi Taw urged President U Thein Sein to honour his promise and solidify his legacy by releasing the remaining political prisoners. The US embassy responded to the amnesty announcement with a statement expressing concern “that there are still many individuals who remain jailed or on trial for simply exercising their right to freely express themselves”. The embassy again urged the president to drop all charges against those on trial for exercising free speech.

Many high-profile protesters and activists were snubbed by the latest amnesty, including most of the 50 student leaders and activists rounded up in the internationally decried Letpadan crackdown last March and detained since then. Despite pressure from the international community and the UN to release the students, Minister for Information U Ye Htut said in November 2015 that the president could not “interfere” in the case as the trial is ongoing. Just one student, the chair of Yandanarbon Student Union Ko Naing Ye Wai, has been released from Mandalay’s Oboe prison.

National League for Democracy (NLD) member U Htin Lin Oo, who is serving time for comments he made about Ma Ba Tha, was also not included in the amnesty.

The FPPS said that those released on January 22 did include 18 activists who were jailed for staging a sit-in in Yangon over a military land grab in Migyaungkan village. Following their release, the Migyaungkan group staged a protest outside Insein prison demanding their fellow political prisoners be freed.

New Zealand and UK dual citizen Phil Blackwood, a former bar manager jailed for causing religious offence with a cheap drinks advertisement, is set to be freed from Insein prison, according to New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But as of yesterday night, his family said they are still awaiting his release.

U Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, critised the amnesty as only “for show” in order to make a modicum of effort to pacify the requests of the international community. If the government was legitimately interested in the reform process, he said, they would stop arresting political prisoners.

“We have the amnesty decision on the one hand, and an increasing number of political prisoners on the other. But a truly democratic country would not have any political prisoners,” he said.

Just ahead of the amnesty announcement, former Saffron Revolution leader U Gambira was arrested and detained on immigration charges. The same day the pardons were granted, Kachin activist Patrick Kum Ja Lee was convicted of defaming the military via a Facebook post and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Responding to the presidential pardons, the AAPP cited concerns that the government’s limited amnesty called into question its commitment to a smooth transition of power.

“The AAPP maintains that without the release of all political prisoners there can be no national reconciliation,” said the statement.

Just days before the amnesty, Human Rights Watch called the continuing detention and arrest of political prisoners “the most glaring indictment of President [U] Thein Sein’s human rights record”.

“This revolving door of political prisoner releases and convictions needs to stop,” Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in a statement after the pardons were announced.

HRW also called on the incoming NLD government to make a public commitment to prioritise the immediate and unconditional release of remaining political prisoners.

While the NLD has not yet weighed in on the president’s limited pardons, U Tun Tun Hein, a spokesperson for the NLD, told The Myanmar Times earlier this month that the party would set a definition once in power and “would not arrest anyone as political prisoners”. The party has repeatedly cited that releasing those still behind bars will be a priority, but as The Myanmar Times reported last week, the plan may be complicated by the fact that some inmates may be deemed “national security threats” by the military-controlled ministries.