Myanmar’s political prisoner problem persists.

January 7, 2014

Despite recent amnesty, political prisoners are still behind bars and catch-all laws mean more will join them, rights groups say

YANGON, MYANMAR – Khin Lai Yee looks despondently at a photograph of her father. Framed with a black bow and white flower, his is just one of scores of black and white portraits of political prisoners who died while in custody honoured at memorial Thursday in Yangon.

“There is no justice,” the 46-year-old Myanmar woman said. “They forced me to sign a document agreeing he died of a heart attack, but I know it isn’t true.”

“I want to sue the government for what they did to us,” Khin Lai Yee said.

But for this daughter of a general who fell foul of the autocratic military regime, and the families of other political prisoners who perished on the inside in the notoriously brutal conditions of Myanmar’s hard labour camps, there is no recourse for her suffering.

Even for released political prisoners, most presidential amnesties granted are “conditional”, meaning the can find themselves back behind bars at any time and, their convictions barring them from most forms of employment and schooling, are left in a perpetual limbo some say is as akin to being in a prison without walls.

Still behind bars

According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) at least 46 persecuted people remain behind bars in Myanmar’s notoriously brutal prison system and around 100 are awaiting trial under catch-all laws for locking away dissidents.

Reformist president Thein Sein granted amnesty to five political prisoners on Tuesday with a final release due next week as the quasi-civillian government strives to uphold Thein Sein’s personal commitment to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013.

Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said in a Facebook post on December 31, “I would like to say that the president has fulfilled his promise given to the people, because there will be no political prisoners at all at the end of 2013.”

He attached a report of the Remaining Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee (RPPSC), which has overseen the release of 354 prisoners in 2013.

However, contradicting and often politicized definitions from the members of the RPPSC as to who qualifies as a political prisoner means some persecuted people have slipped through the cracks.


“It’s problematic that scores of Rohingya Muslims still languish in prison in Rakhine State and aren’t considered political prisoners,” Fortify Rights director Matthew Smith said. “(NGO workers) Dr. Tun Aung and U Kyaw Hla Aung are two prominent examples, and they are not alone in prison.”

The RPPSC, comprised of government officials, rights group advocates and former political prisoners, proposes lists of political prisoners to the president’s office for Thein Sein’s personal approval and amnesty order.

Developing the list has been hampered by the competing views of the committee’s members about who qualifies as a political prisoner.

Recently, opposition parliamentarian Thein Nyunt pushed forward a motion to consider classifying 21 former military intelligences officers incarcerated during a 2004 internal power struggle and ultimate purge in which the Military Intelligent unit was disbanded altogether.

The bid has been blocked by both rights groups and government members on the committee, leaving the former military officers with no avenue for appeal.

Amnesty, not change

“There have been some political changes but it is not really fundamental change yet,” said Moethee Zun, a student activist during Myanmar’s violent 1988 uprising. “We see only small, superficial changes, you know we can make a celebration here, you can go around the country, very basic changes, [but] we want to see more political change.”

Between 3,000 and 4,000 activists were imprisoned in 1988 and over the ensuing months and years for their role in the protests that brought Yangon to a stand still. Many have since been released, the greatest number in the wave of amnesties granted to thousands of political prisoners by presidential decree of Thein Sein since 2011.

Others have died in custody and some continue to languish in prison, Moethee Zun said.

“Because of this, people still feel fear,” he said, adding that no amount of amnesties could erase the trauma of seeing loved ones tortured, harassed and locked-up.

“If you gave out a small political leaflet [under the old regime] you get 20 years, but now it is six months. But in terms of freedom, it is the same,” Moethee Zun said.

“So much fear keeps people nervous; they don’t want to be at risk,”

And even for those granted amnesty, freedom is evasive.

“The recent releases were also conditional, meaning these citizens could be locked up again at any time,” Fortify Right’s Smith said. “I recently interviewed a released Kachin political prisoner who endured torture and was afraid to speak to a human rights organization out of fear he would be locked up again. This sentiment is common among recently released political prisoners.”

“It’s always good news when political prisoners are released but there are a number of steps that still have to be taken to protect the basic human rights of would-be political prisoners,” he said. “There’s a legal infrastructure that’s been used to lock up dissidents and it’s still firmly in place.”

Catch-all laws

Meeting the 2013 amnesty deadline is one thing, ensuring correct legal processes are applied to avoid incarceration of political targets is another entirely, Kyaw Hoe, a senior litigator and member of the National League for Democracy opposition party, said.

“These political cases where people are sued by the government, the government has everything – information, resources – human and money,” Kyaw Hoe said.

While he has noticed a decline in politically motivated cases since 2010, Kyaw Hoe estimates he provided 1,540 hours in pro bono legal assistance to NLD members in 2013 alone.

“These are cases where NLD members have been assaulted, sued on trumped up charges or accused of leading illegal political protests,” he said.

Hearings can drag on for up to a year, with the accused often behind bars for the duration of the trial, unable to make bail.

“The judge calls a meeting once every fortnight, not like the US where a trial date is set and they hear the case everyday until it is finished. It is not like that here.”

After arduous trials, upon conviction inmates can be moved regularly through Myanmar’s geographically expansive prison system. Released prisoners speak of being moved up to fifteen hours’ travel away from their family and rotated in and out of hard labour detention centres.

“I cannot focus on the future,” a 28-year-old recently released political prisoner who had served in the army said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

“I have been in prison for five years and I don’t know anything anymore. I have to stay with my family,” he said with the common resignation released political prisoners often feel to their “imprisonment without walls”.

“I used to want to work with computers,” he said of his teenage ambition. “But then I joined the army, and…” he shakes his head – an echo of Khin Lai Yee gazing upon her father’s photocopied face.

A version of this story was first published by Al Jazeera

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