RANGOON — A group of former political prisoners in Burma has demanded the release of all prisoners of conscience and detainees facing trial for similar charges, urging President Thein Sein to free them before a general election due late this year.
“Burma’s President Thein Sein made a pledge to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013. But he didn’t keep his promise,” Tun Kyi from the Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “There were 27 political prisoners who remained behind bars at that time.”
He said there are currently 163 political prisoners behind bars and more than 500 still facing trials, including 68 student protesters who were detained after a police crackdown on students protesting for education reform in Letpadan, Pegu Division.
“So, we urge the release of all political prisoners who were incarcerated and are facing trials before President Thein Sein’s term expires, not just saying this [that there are no political prisoners in Burma] but to prove with deeds,” Tun Kyi said.
The FPPS released the demand, along with two others, at the end of a two-day conference over the weekend in Rangoon. More than 160 people from 18 groups of former political prisoners in the country attended the conference.
The three demands included amending Burma’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution in accordance with the people’s wishes and to accelerate an all-inclusive peace process with Burma’s ethnic armed groups.
“We will ask for the support of the public, and local and international organizations, for our demands,” Tun Kyi said.
The government and political activists have been at odds over what defines a political prisoner. Groups for former political prisoners held a workshop and established a definition of political prisoners last year, which is due to be submitted to Parliament seeking recognition from the government.
Various denouncements have been issued by activist groups as the number of people jailed for offenses such as illegally protesting has grown, but the government maintains that such charges are criminal and thus require prosecution.
It is a claim that Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), flatly rejects.
“What they are saying—that there are no political prisoners—is ignoring the truth,” he told The Irrawaddy. “No political freedom, no rule of law, and civil wars in Myanmar are the causes of having political prisoners and I would like to say unequivocally that there are still political prisoners.”
Bo Kyi said the credibility of the November election would be compromised if the government failed to release the country’s political prisoners beforehand, with these people being denied the chance to compete for parliamentary seats or otherwise participate in the political process.
Thein Sein has granted amnesties to more than 1,000 political prisoners since taking office in 2011, as part of a democratic reform program that has won the president international praise.
Thein Sein made the pledge to release all of Burma’s political prisoners by the end of 2013 in London on July 14 of that year.