CHIANG MAI, Thailand — “I had to be very careful not to commit even a small crime after I was released from prison, as Article 401 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure was tied to me despite my freedom,” said U Issariya, a leading monk in the 2007 Saffron Revolution who was released from Hsipaw Prison six years ago in a January 2012 presidential pardon.
As of Tuesday, thousands of former political prisoners no longer need to feel this fear, as the new President U Win Myint issued a decree that nullified the “conditional release” stipulated in Article 401 (1) for those convicted on political charges.
Thousands of political prisoners were released conditionally under former President U Thein Sein, which meant they could be forced to serve the remainder of their initial sentences were they ever to be arrested again.
“This is the end of dictators’ actions,” said U Issariya, now an interfaith trainer at the Peaceful Myanmar Initiative.
President U Win Myint pardoned 8,541 prisoners in a New Year amnesty on Tuesday, including 36 political prisoners and 51 foreigners, also on the same condition that they would no longer face any additional consequences as they were released unconditionally from Article 401 (1).
The majority of those pardoned had been convicted on drug charges, and others had been charged with violating the Military Act or for alleged affiliation with an unlawful association.
Two ethnic Kachin pastors: Dumdaw Nawng Latt, 65, and Langjaw Gam Seng, 35, from Mong Ko, were released from Lashio Prison under the amnesty. They were sentenced to four- and two-year imprisonments respectively, under three charges including unlawful association in October 2017 for assisting journalists who were visiting the area and for allegedly helping the ethnic bloc the Northern Alliance spread wrongful information.
A Kachin farmer Laphai Gam was also released from Myitkyina Prison. He was charged in 2012 for allegedly being a member of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) under Article 17(1) of the 1908 Unlawful Association Act and with four counts under the 1908 Explosive Substances Act. He was sentenced to a total of 20 years imprisonment.
Other farmers released were seven Shan farmers from Hsipaw Prison, according to the AAPP. They were arrested and charged in April 2017 for plowing on confiscated land and sentenced to 16 months in prison.
Most of the political prisoners are members of ethnic armed organizations including the Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, and Arakan Army (AA), as well as local farmers and residents in the conflict zones.
Other releases included some who were sentenced to death including ex-Major Win Naing Kyaw [from the Myanmar Army] and U Than Chaung also known as Sao Khun Kyaw, a member of the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Arm- South (RCSS-SSA-S). Both were released from Tharyarwaddy Prison in Bago Region.
U Win Naing Kyaw was arrested in 2009 on his way back to Myanmar from Cambodia and sentenced to life imprisonment under the Emergency Provisions Act, Electronic Act’s Article 33 (b), Official Secrets Act and Article 505 (b) of the Penal Code in 2010.
U Than Chaung, known as Col Sao Khun Kyaw, was arrested during combat between the Tatmadaw and the RCSS/SSA-S in January 2006 in Namkham Township in Shan State and given four death sentences and one life sentence.
He was a former leader of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front’s northern camp and was allegedly responsible for the killing of 35 of its members in 1992. The ABSDF was a student army that formed following the government’s crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988.
Yan Naing Soe, known as Thein Zaw, was sentenced to life in prison in December 2010 for the charges including the Military Act [for joining the KNU after deserting the Myanmar Army]. He was released on Tuesday from Obo Prison in Mandalay. He said [to reporters in Mandalay], that he “did not expect to be released.”
“It is benevolent,” said U Issariya, adding that the pardon on Tuesday included “the elderly, the ill and minor drug users, but did not include monsters.”
Former political prisoners and the public welcomed the new president’s pardons, as he was a former political prisoner as well.
“He [the president] is well aware that 401 (1) is an obstacle to former prisoners of conscience because he was one. The National League for Democracy (NLD) also has many political prisoners, so, he revoked this ruling,” said U Bo Kyi, the secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
According to the AAPP, there are 18 political prisoners left in prison and 74 more facing trial for politically related charges while detained. There are 120 others facing trial who are not in detention. Among them are land rights activists, ethnic IDPs who were accused of unlawful association, and Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo.
President U Win Myint’s decree ensures that former political prisoners won’t have to serve the remainder of their sentences if charged again, said U Bo Kyi.
The conditional release was unclear under the previous administration, according to U Bo Kyi. In 2013, former political prisoner Nay Myo Zin was rearrested on another charge and the court ruled that he needed to serve the remainder of his previous sentence before being released.
In a 2015 amnesty, former President U Thein Sein dismissed all of the charges against those facing ongoing politically related trials. U Bo Kyi says that many expect that the NLD government will use this ruling as a precedent to drop ongoing political lawsuits.
Many formal political prisoners now share their views online. Under the former military junta, they were given harsh punishments for their beliefs.
“Conditional release under 401 (1) was used to threaten political activists and we welcome the reversal,” added U Ant Bwe Kyaw, the information committee coordinator for a new political party that is still in formation.
U Ant Bwe Kyaw was a former political prisoner who was sentenced to 65 years in prison in 2008 for participating in demonstrations against a fuel price hike a year earlier. He was released in 2012.
Sai Nyunt Lwin, the secretary of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) also shared the same view that “the revocation was a great move, as 401 (1) was a black shadow for all political activists.” Sai Nyunt Lwin was also freed from prison in 2012. Along with other Shan leaders, he was sentenced to 85 years imprisonment.
Zarni Mann contributed to this report from Mandalay.