Amnesty for Political Prisoners Eagerly Anticipated as Myanmar Ushers in New Year

By San Yamin Aung 12 April 2019

YANGON—To mark the traditional New Year, which falls in mid-April, Myanmar people free birds and fish to make merit. For the government, releasing prisoners in the New Year period is customary.

Last year, President U Win Myint pardoned 8,541 prisoners in the New Year amnesty, including 36 political prisoners and 51 foreigners.

His predecessor as president, U Htin Kyaw, acquitted student protesters facing political charges and pardoned 83 prisoners in the 2016 New Year amnesty. Dozens of political prisoners were among those released.

How about this year? Will President U Win Myint pardon all political prisoners?

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), there are currently 45 political prisoners behind bars, while more than 300 individuals are facing trial inside and outside prison.

Myanmar will celebrate the New Year festival starting Saturday, and usher in the New Year on April 17. As the festival draws near, the families of detainees and political activists are hoping for good news.

Ma Pan Ei Mon, the wife of the jailed Reuters journalist Ko Wa Lone, said on Thursday that she is hoping her husband and his colleague Ko Kyaw Soe Oo will be released.

The two journalists have spent more than 15 months in detention since they were arrested in December 2017 while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslim civilians involving Myanmar soldiers in Inn Din village in Rakhine State’s Maungdaw Township. The pair were sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in September under the Official State Secrets Act. The verdict drew an international outcry and strong condemnation.

Aside from Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, there are many other political prisoners who were arrested and jailed because of a miscarriage of justice and they should all be released, Ko Aung Myo Kyaw of the AAPP said.

“We hope for the release of all political prisoners. And that’s what we have been demanding,” he said.

Among the political prisoners are former child soldier Aung Ko Htwe, who was jailed in connection with a media interview he gave; Arakanese politician Dr. Aye Maung and author Wai Hin Aung, who were sentenced to 20 years in prison in March over speeches they made at a literary discussion; and two peaceful protesters, Lum Zawng and Zau Jat.

Nang Pu, Lum Zawng and Zau Jat of the Kachin National Social Development Association were sentenced to six months in December and fined 500,000 kyats ($333) for defaming the Myanmar military. They participated in protests demanding the government help trapped villagers amid fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the military. Nang Pu was released from prison on April 5 because of her deteriorating health, but the other two remain behind bars.

Many of the other political prisoners were sentenced under the Unlawful Associations Act and the Telecommunications Law—two controversial laws that rights activists have demanded be repealed.

Ruling party lawmaker Ma Zin Mar Aung, who is also a former political prisoner, said that in prison the Myanmar New Year is one of those special occasions that every prisoner looks forward to with high hopes.

“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once said that even one political prisoner is too many. We don’t want to see political prisoners in this transition anymore,” she said.

Under the previous military regime, thousands of political activists and politicians were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their anti-government activities.

Thousands of political prisoners were released conditionally under former President U Thein Sein, meaning they faced having to serve the remainder of their initial sentences were they ever to be arrested again. In the 2018 amnesty, however, President U Win Myint issued a decree nullifying the “conditional” status of their release for those convicted on political charges by the previous governments.

Ko Aung Myo Kyaw of the AAPP said he hopes the political prisoners will be pardoned, as he had heard there could be a presidential amnesty on April 17. He added that those who are facing political charges should also be acquitted.

Last year, almost all political prisoners on the AAPP’s list were released under the presidential amnesty.

Ma Pan Ei Mon said, “For me, if he is released, I will be as happy as if I had won the lottery.”