RANGOON — Burma has freed more than a thousand political prisoners since former military rulers handed over power three years ago, a move that has smoothed the former pariah state’s international rehabilitation. Now the government says the job is done. Human-rights activists and the U.S. say, not so fast.
President Thein Sein is preparing to disband a committee that determined which inmates were eligible for pardons and amnesties, even though its most outspoken member says more than two dozen prisoners still deserve to be released, including a monk who angered many fellow Buddhists and an air force pilot who complained about mistreatment.
As Burma prepares to host the Nov. 12-13 East Asian Summit, to be attended by President Barack Obama, the fate of the remaining prisoners is one of the nagging international concerns over what’s proving a bumpy change to democracy, also troubled by sectarian violence against minority Muslims and the military’s continuing grip on politics.
Meanwhile, jails are again filling up with hundreds of dissenters, including writers, peaceful protesters and farmers who stood up against land grabs by the rich and powerful. Among the most prominent cases: four journalists sentenced to seven years for a story about a weapons factory.
The detentions are just part of the mixed human-rights record under Thein Sein, a former general who was elected in 2010 to end a half-century-long era of military dictatorship in the Southeast Asian country. Burma gained praise, and shed many international sanctions, as it lifted restrictions on speech and the press and set more than 1,300 political prisoners free. But crackdowns in recent months have revealed the limits of those changes.
Early last year, at the urging of the U.S., Burma set up a “scrutinizing committee” — consisting of government officials and representatives from civil society and political parties — to determine which prisoners should be released. Now it intends to replace the committee with a task force that would be controlled by the Home Ministry — the very institution that controls prisons.
One of the committee’s members, Hla Maung Shwe, said the work of the panel is now complete. The government says only true criminals remain behind bars.
Bo Kyi, the committee’s most outspoken member and a former political prisoner, disagrees. Since the late 1990s, he has compiled a list of political prisoners and supported the families of detainees. He said at least 28 are still held, and that the government has obstructed efforts to visit prisons and get information about inmates.
The U.S. State Department puts the number at around 30 to 40.
“Until these cases are resolved, I can’t agree with the opinion of other committee members,” Bo Kyi said. “We haven’t finished our work. We cannot forget these men.”
He said the remaining junta-era inmates include:
—Moe Pyar Sayardaw, a 75-year-old monk arrested in 2010. He is serving 20 years in the Myitkyina prison in Kachin state for teaching a form of his faith that does not adhere to the official doctrine of the main government-controlled Buddhist body.
—Air force pilot Chit Ko, serving 10 years, after arguing he was technically eligible for discharge after a decade’s service. When his request was refused, he took his complaints to the U.N. International Labor Organization and to the Internet, angering his superiors.
—Win Naing Kyaw, a former army captain accused of planning to leak military state secrets that were discovered on his laptop during a trip to Bangkok. He later claimed innocence, saying he only confessed after 42 days of being beaten, drugged and threatened.
—More than a dozen villagers from Shan, Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s former military rulers claimed they were ethnic rebels, even though Bo Kyi said there was no evidence of that.
Bo Kyi said the government considers the outstanding cases sensitive and worries that, by releasing the prisoners, it would endure a backlash from military hardliners and increasingly politically powerful Buddhist extremists.
Minister of Information Ye Htut did not respond to questions from The Associated Press about remaining political prisoners. In the past he has said all of them have been freed.
But it’s not just a legacy issue. New arrests and detentions continue into Thein Sein’s third year in office.
Around 200 people have been detained in the last year, including peaceful protesters, journalists and activists, according to Dave Matthieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Bo Kyi says another 500 to 1,000 farmers are reportedly behind bars for working land they say was unlawfully seized by the army, private corporations or cronies.
“New political prisoner cases have continued to arise due to restrictive laws remaining on the books,” said Chanan Weissman, spokesman in the U.S. State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor.
Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, reported to the General Assembly this week that the application of outdated security laws and a new flawed law on peaceful assembly serves “to criminalize and impede the activities of civil society and the media.” She said sentences imposed are “disproportionately high.”
Lee cited the case of Dr. Tun Aung, a community leader arrested after being called in by authorities to try to help calm Rohingya Muslim crowds who were leading riots against Buddhists in northern Arakan State in June 2012. Accused of inciting the violence, he was sentenced to 17 years in jail. Thanks to strong international pressure, Tun Aung is now scheduled to be released next year.
Ahead of Obama’s visit, U.S. officials are urging Thein Sein to pardon four journalists from the journal Unity who were charged under a colonial-era security law for a story in January about an alleged chemical weapons factory. They are currently appealing their seven-year sentences in Burma’s Supreme Court.
The outlook looks less favorable for the junta-era detainees, particularly if scrutiny of their cases diminishes.
Bo Kyi said he’s been told by the government he won’t be included in the new prisoner task force.
“I’m being sidelined,” said Bo Kyi, who lives in Burma but still relies on the Czech travel documentation from his exile years. “They say it’s because I’m not a citizen, but that’s nonsense, it’s just an excuse.”