Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘There Should Be No Political Prisoners In A Democratic Country’

By The Irrawaddy 28 May 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss human rights in the context of the new government’s 100-day plan. I am joined by Ko Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, and Ko Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. I’m The Irrawaddy’s Burmese-language editor Ye Ni.

Soon after U Htin Kyaw’s government assumed power, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced the release of many political prisoners. Proposals were then submitted to the parliament to revoke legal provisions used by the previous military, and military-backed, governments to prosecute political dissidents. Ko Aung Myo Min, what do you think of these actions?  Do you think there will be further human rights progress in the months to come?

Aung Myo Min: We have said that there should be no political prisoners in a democratic country, and we are grateful that [the government] has released them. It is also good that [the government] is trying to amend laws that can turn anyone into a political prisoner at any time, and is talking about ceasefires [between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups] and national reconciliation.

But then, it is undeniable that the new government faces serious challenges in introducing change. The power of the military is still felt in all branches of executive power. While elected lawmakers sit in the parliament, the military still holds 25 percent of seats. And in some cases, I have found that [military representatives] have argued with and opposed elected lawmakers.

There is now a substantial degree of civilian participation in government. The president and most ministers are civilians. But then, the military and the army chief still have the final say on really important issues, and we still can’t change this. As a result, there may be friction between the new government and the old [military-dominated] bureaucracy. But at the same time, things may proceed successfully if the military is willing to cooperate.

YN: Ko Bo Kyi, is it reasonable to say that all political prisoners have now been released?

Bo Kyi: It can’t be said that all political prisoners have been released. There are still arrests being made. Currently, 64 [political] prisoners are still serving time, and over 100 are facing trial—so the number of political prisoners may even increase. But we can’t just talk about numbers: We have to find and address the cause.

There are still political prisoners because there is no rule of law—[people] can’t enjoy their rights to the full. As long as civil wars, land disputes and industrial disputes remain unresolved, there will still be political prisoners. I’m not suggesting that these problems be solved within 100 days. But they need to be comprehensively settled in the long run.

Meanwhile, the parliament should define ‘political prisoner,’ so that political prisoners can be treated with respect in prison and permitted certain entitlements. The ‘socialist’ concept that all those placed behind bars should be treated the same is a major hindrance to prison reform. Prisons are overcrowded, further eroding the fundamental rights of prisoners. There are situations in which prisoners are not treated as human. For example, Insein Prison [in Rangoon] can accommodate only 5,000 prisoners; when numbers reach 8,000 or above, they have to sleep on their sides. This is not how a human should be treated.

There are many ways in which prisoners [in Burma] are denied their right to life, good health and wellbeing. We need to think about prison reform—but reforming the prison system is not enough; we also need to enact associated security sector reforms. And we should work towards judicial independence, and provide security for judges so that they can make judgments without bias. Reforms will succeed only when we take all these things into consideration.

YN: Ko Bo Kyi, I’m interested in what you said about human rights progress being linked to security sector reform.

Ko Aung Myo Win, the U Thein Sein government formed the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to address human rights issues [in Burma]. What are your thoughts on the functioning of that commission and its complaints-handling mechanism? Do you think it is up to the task?

AMM: To be frank, it is not up to the task. That commission is responsible for both promoting and protecting human rights. But in terms of handling complaints and facilitating justice, its power is very limited and it does not receive proper recognition [from the government].

The commission is not authorized to make rulings—instead it forwards its findings about human rights issues to relevant government departments and offers advice. This bestows on ministerial and departmental personnel, who are charged with taking practical action, a very important role—but responses have generally been inadequate, despite the submissions of the human rights commission.

The human rights commission does not have the power to influence the army. For example, the commission investigated the case of Ko Par Gyi [a freelance journalist who died in military custody in 2014] and released a report, which called for the case to be transferred [from a military court] to a civilian court, and be heard publicly, because the military itself was implicated in the case. This didn’t happen.

We heard that the suspects were tried at a military court. It seemed like a show of disrespect for the human rights commission. And the commission could do nothing. The military in the end just issued an empty statement saying that the suspects had been ‘punished.’ This shows that much remains to be done in terms of reforming the security sector.

Human rights abuses happen most frequently in ethnic minority areas where rule of law is weak and armed clashes [between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups] are going on. The human rights commission cannot prevent human rights violations happening in ethnic minority areas. And the army does not take responsibility. Where are we supposed to find the rule of law?

YN: If only the military were willing, security reforms could be made. But take a look at the Ward and Village Tract Administration Law [enacted by the previous government in 2012 but based on earlier, colonial-era legislation], which permits local authorities to perform random house searches to check for ‘unregistered’ overnight guests. Do the military still need to enforce these laws on the grounds of ‘security’? Can we say they are wrong to do such things even when they are done from the perspective of national security? Or can we say that they are right, because it guards against instability?

BK: We have to ask the following questions: Are we a real sovereign country? Can the military, which have taken responsibility for national security over successive periods, really protect the country?

We have to consider national security alongside the security of the individual. Everyone is responsible for protecting the sovereignty of their country. But while formulating laws, we must approach [them] not only from the perspective of national security, but from the perspective of personal freedom. If we pay too much attention to security, our country will go back to dictatorship. If we pay too much attention to personal freedom, it may disrupt the stability of the country. We have to strike a balance.

The practice of authorities checking houses for overnight guests dates back to the colonial period. The British imposed such laws to suppress Burmese patriots, and to prevent people from actively supporting them.

These laws have been applied in subsequent periods, however, with the military regime using them to suppress people and prevent them from supporting political dissidents. Its harmfulness is such that, even if a person living independently returns to sleep overnight at their parents’ house without informing the authorities, he and his parents could be fined or imprisoned.

Such practices should be curtailed even in conditions of instability and chaos. Personally, I would suggest annulling the entire law. However, other surveillance mechanisms should be upgraded to protect the people and prevent crime. Our current surveillance capacity is lacking; it seems as if they can only catch those [criminals] who don’t run. To enhance surveillance capacity, we need to have security sector reform.

YN: Ko Aung Myo Min, how would you compare the human rights situation in ethnic minority areas under the U Thein Sein government with the situation now?

AMM: It can’t yet be said that the human rights situation [in ethnic minority areas] has improved. There is gunfire even as [the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups] talk of ceasefire. Human rights violations are still going on. Furthermore, the Unlawful Associations Act [which criminalizes contact with ethnic armed groups] threatens everyone in such areas. We still see abductions, torture and killings in northern Shan State and in Kachin State. The rule of law is deteriorating further there.

In recent years people had begun to overcome their reluctance to file complaints—but now they think that, even if they complain, nothing will happen. This feeling has spread like an epidemic. It seems that people have no faith in the law, and have adopted a fatalistic attitude.

The camps of internally displaced persons are proof of human rights violations. Due to clashes, there are even camps in places such as Hsipaw [a highway hub town and tourist destination in northern Shan State]. Kachin State still has many camps and the number is increasing in Arakan State. That people have been forced from their homes is an abuse of their human rights

Sometimes the situation is complex. Previously, clashes occurred between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups, but they are increasingly taking place between ethnic armed groups. No matter which side commits what, innocent civilians are robbed of their security. Villages are destroyed—we don’t know by whom—and it is bad regardless.

There are now camps in Arakan State which were not there before. And because of hatred and misunderstanding between communities, the two sides feel insecure and remain suspicious of each other, which could contribute to renewed conflict anytime. So, I have found no evidence that the human rights situation has improved in such areas.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!