In its first public use of the term “political prisoner,” Burma’s state-run media on Thursday announced that a new committee has been formed by the President’s Office to identify the country’s remaining prisoners of conscience “so as to grant them liberty.”
“Committee to be formed to grant liberty to remaining political prisoners,” reads the headline of a short article that appears on the final page of today’s New Light of Myanmar, signaling the government’s belated recognition of a problem that has drawn condemnation for decades.
The new committee, to be headed by President’s Office Minister Soe Thane, will include government officials and representatives from civil society groups and some political parties, according to the report.
Burma’s government has long denied the existence of political prisoners in the country, preferring to treat them as ordinary convicts when releasing them as part of previous amnesties. Since taking power nearly two years ago, President Thein Sein has ordered the release of thousands of prisoners, with political detainees making up just a fraction of the total number.
Today’s announcement was welcomed by activists who have long called for the release of all political prisoners.
“We must acknowledge that this announcement is the first formal use of the term ‘prisoner of conscience’ [by the government],” Tate Naing, the secretary of the Thailand-base Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said on Thursday.
Senior members of the AAPP, including Tate Naing and joint-secretary Bo Kyi, have been in Burma since early January to meet with government officials and activists for discussions aimed at determining the number of political prisoners still behind bars.
According to Tate Naing, the total now stands at 236.
“That is how many we have on a draft list after meeting with former political prisoners, the National League for Democracy and the 88 Generation Students group,” he said, adding that the AAPP also has a longer list that includes residents of Kachin State who have been detained for their alleged connections to Kachin rebels.
The AAPP, which also supports efforts to rehabilitate former political prisoners, is expected to hold further talks with government officials to urge them to guarantee the civil rights of ex-prisoners, including their right to access to education, vocational training and employment.
According to Tate Naing, the AAPP, the 88 Generation Students groups and other former political prisoners have been invited to join the new government committee, which “will define the meaning of prisoners of conscience” and establish a “framework for releasing and scrutinizing the remaining political prisoners,” according to The New Light of Myanmar.