The government-initiated Committee for Scrutinizing the Remaining Political Prisoners has come to an end. With 159 remaining political prisoners and an entirely unfulfilled mandate, the government has seen fit this week to create a new body, the Prisoners of Conscience Affairs Committee, to handle the urgent problem of political prisoners in our country.
However, this body excludes my organization, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB), one of the main organizations working to resolve the issue of political prisoners. Whether or not AAPPB has been included is not the most pressing concern, but it does hint at the attitude of the government toward this issue. AAPPB was an active member of the previous committee and, where necessary, highlighted problems that were preventing the committee from fulfilling its mandate. We were also eager to suggest positive changes that might be made to the process of political prisoners’ scrutiny.
Despite high hopes from many in Burma, the process fell drastically short of expectations and never came close to fulfilling the initial mandate. The committee never held the legitimacy it should have, and members were unable to gain any real foothold in the process. The issues that caused the first committee process to founder are more fundamental than simply being about the inclusion or exclusion of AAPPB. The failure was due to the government approach to this committee and the insurmountable barriers that prevented committee members from working freely and without restrictions. This government approach appears unchanged with the new committee.
At the outset, the creation of the review committee was a positive move and could have strengthened civil society’s relationships with the government. AAPPB saw the committee as a welcome step that would ensure political prisoner issues were kept on the agenda. The year 2013 was the year the government spoke of its commitment to a free Burma, a commitment that recognized the role that the release of political prisoners would play in the national reconciliation process.
While visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron in London in mid-2013, President U Thein Sein made the commitment we had been all waiting for: “By the end of the year there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,” he said. For the first time in many decades, the end of 2013 was supposed to see a complete absence of political prisoners from Burma’s jails.
Indeed the end of 2013 and the start of 2014 did see a number of releases and the termination of many political activists’ trials that had been ongoing. The government claimed to have fulfilled its promise to the outside world by releasing all political prisoners. However, this statement was simply not true—30 political prisoners were still in jail.
The 30 prisoners who remained behind bars had been continually discussed throughout the meetings in 2013. The committee members had established a working definition of political prisoners and those 30 people qualified for release under that definition.
Responding to concerns raised about these remaining prisoners, a government minister simply stated in November 2014 that: “It was found that three of the prisoners have been released and the remaining 27 prisoners committed other crimes. Their sentences for political activities have been annulled under [an] order of the President’s Office dated 30 December 2013.”
President U Thein Sein’s government statement explaining their continued imprisonment revealed the attitude that still exists toward freeing political activists. These remaining 27 were deemed criminals and not “prisoners of conscience” as his administration chooses to term them. The government chooses to persist with the prisoners of conscience title because it causes confusion with civil society terminology and helps the government avoid recognizing the political nature of these prisoners. Their statement did not recognize the political motivations for their actions or the torture and mistreatment some have suffered during their wrongful imprisonment.
Their status as political detainees is never fully acknowledged and their freedom after prison is greatly restricted as a result. There is no acceptance that they should never have been jailed, no apology, no full pardon, and no compensation. Without the government fully respecting the definition of a political prisoner, this process is unlikely to ever function smoothly.
According to the government position at the beginning of 2014, their international commitment to free all political prisoners were satisfied and no more political prisoners remained. The international community in turn relaxed pressure. For the government, the need to commit time and energy to a process was not as urgent as it was in 2013. Even getting a committee meeting organized in 2014 became a challenge, with only three taking place the entire year.
As 2015 begins, the failings of the first committee are there for all to see. During 2014, the number of political prisoners steadily rose back up, and has now reached 160. Many more are awaiting trial.
Many activists imprisoned during the past year were not first-time prisoners, with those brave enough to continue their political work constantly facing harassment and the likelihood of being rearrested.
Sadly though, the new committee is highly unlikely to be able to resolve the problems faced by its predecessor. The committee itself still falls under the management of the Home Affairs Ministry, the very same ministry that is responsible for the continuing arrests and imprisonments. The same lack of transparency, accountability and openness that dogged the Scrutinizing Committee will almost certainly hamper the success of this latest process.
Without freedom and independence from government influence, the new committee will not be able to work effectively, and the crisis of political prisoners in our jails will continue. For those on the committee to be able to do their jobs effectively, significant changes to the mandate and structure of the committee must be made. As a starting point, four practical steps should be taken. There should be a commitment to abide by international human rights law, covenants, treaties and declarations. The committee must genuinely involve civil society representatives. The committee must have the power to proactively choose to investigate cases of those in detention. The committee must also have the power to compel the police, security forces, military, prison authorities and government departments to cooperate with investigations.
The new committee must not simply be a mechanism that the government uses to deflect criticism about political prisoners, claiming there is a process in place and it is up to the committee, not the government itself. The committee must have the independence and power to investigate cases and ensure all political prisoners are released. As long as political prisoners remain in jail, we cannot achieve genuine reform and reconciliation in our country.
Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and cofounder and joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma. Follow AAPPB on Twitter at: @aapp_burma