Burma Releases Political Prisoners Ahead of US State Visit

By Political Parties, Political Prisoners 17 May 2013

RANGOON—Twenty-three prisoners, including at least 15 political prisoners, were released from detention on Friday by Burma’s President Thein Sein ahead of a landmark meeting with US President Barack Obama in Washington next week.

At least 10 political prisoners were released from Burma’s notorious Insein Prison near Rangoon, where many opponents of the former military regime were sent, according to Ye Aung, a member of the Former Political Prisoners Group who is working with the government to review the detention of political prisoners.

He said five other released prisoners were members of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), one of the key opposition groups that formed from the 1988 uprising.

It was not immediately clear on Friday how many of the other released prisoners were political prisoners. Activists from the 88 Generation Students Group said in a statement later in the day that 21 of the 23 pardoned detainees were political prisoners.

Burma’s nominally civilian government has freed thousands of prisoners, including several hundred political prisoners, as part of sweeping reforms in the transition from military rule. Most of the mass amnesties, including the release of at least 59 political prisoners in April, have coincided with decisions in the West to suspend or lift economic sanctions.

“The government’s intention is to ease international pressure,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and prominent Burmese activist who has criticized the government for treating prisoners as diplomatic bargaining chips.

On Monday, Thein Sein and Obama are expected to discuss how the United States can assist Burma’s efforts to “develop democracy, address communal and ethnic tensions, and bring economic opportunity to the people,” according to a statement released by the White House earlier this week.

Thein Sein formed a committee in February to review the detention of political prisoners and work toward their release, but activists worry the government is using outdated information to make amnesty decisions.

Bo Kyi, a joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), is working with that 19-member committee, which includes government officials as well as representatives from political parties and civil society groups. But he says the government’s list of remaining political prisoners is inaccurate.

“On May 11 [last Saturday], the government said they had received a list of 1,571 political prisoners, which they said was compiled by AAPP, the US government, KNU [the Karen National Union] or other organizations,” Bo Kyi told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “Actually, we did not send that list. I do not know how they got it. That list is out of date.”

Before Friday’s amnesty, he said there were 183 political prisoners behind bars. “Maybe another 100 or more are also facing trial,” he said, adding that these figures were supported by the AAPP, the 88 Generation Students Group, the Former Political Prisoners Group and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy.

Bo Kyi said he worried that the government’s larger list included detainees who are not political prisoners. As a result, he said, the president could give amnesty to criminals on the list while political prisoners remained behind bars.

“For the previous April 23 release, we found out that some of the released prisoners were drug dealers,” he said. “We did not regard them as political prisoners, we did not send that list to the government, and therefore we want to know which organization listed drug dealers as political prisoners.

“We dislike the way the government released the political prisoners on April 23,” he added. “They did not announce anything when they released them. Also, all [the released detainees] had to sign under 401, which means conditional release.”

According to Section 401 of Burma’s penal code, former political prisoners can see their pardons overturned. Under the law, if they are convicted of a new crime, they must serve not only the new prison sentence, but also the remaining years of the old prison sentence.

Last week, a dissident’s pardon was overturned for the first time since Thein Sein’s administration came to power two years ago.

“We want President Obama to suggest that Burma’s president release Nay Myo Zin immediately and to announce those who are released previously under Section 401 are unconditionally released,” said Bo Kyi, referring to the dissident.

“Other people are worried about it, because they don’t know if they will be sent back to prison,” he said. “We need the president to make another order, that those who were freed under [Section] 401 will now be released unconditionally.”

The government has previously denied the existence of political prisoners, saying all prison inmates were criminals who broke the nation’s laws.

Now, Bo Kyi and the 19-member Committee to Review Political Prisoners is developing a definition of the term “political prisoner” to determine which detainees should qualify for future presidential pardons.

“Generally, we agree that those who are detained related with political organization or political in nature are political prisoners,” Bo Kyi said, adding that the government had not formally adopted the committee’s definition, but that the committee’s chairman, Union Minister Soe Thane, agreed. “If the chairman agrees, everyone [on the government side] will agree,” Bo Kyi said.

Another committee member, Zarganar, a Burmese comedian and former political prisoner, confirmed the group had formed a definition. “We like to use the definition of a prisoner who was arrested with a political cause,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

The committee does not have the authority to release prisoners but will submit its recommendations to Thein Sein.

“The committee is deciding who are political prisoners, making a list of them and submitting [it] to the president,” committee member Hla Maung Shwe, a well-known businessman with close ties to the ruling party, said in a statement on his Facebook page after the committee’s third meeting last Saturday.

“We’ve discussed the issue more openly than in previous meetings,” he added. “I feel we built more trust among our members. The Chairman U Soe Thane said the committee members can ask the secretary to have access to the prisoners list, if they need access to the lists from prisons or collaboration with other departments.”

In the past, Bo Kyi said, the government did not allow civil society representatives on the committee to see its list.

“If we get this information, we can work on it [verifying the list],” he said. “Otherwise, how can we work?”

An imbalance of power on the committee is a concern, he added.

“We do not have equal status in the committee,” he said of the group’s civil society representatives. “We cannot call for a meeting—if they call a meeting we have to join. The meeting is just two hours, a little more than two hours. But a two-hour meeting doesn’t work for anything … We’ve made progress, but it’s a little difficult, it will take time.”

Nyan Win, a committee member from the opposition National League for Democracy, declined to comment on the internal balance of power in the committee, but said nobody on the committee had any power to release political prisoners. “We can only give the list of recommendations to the president,” he said.

According to state-run media, the committee includes two ministers from the President’s Office, the deputy minister of home affairs, the deputy attorney general, and representatives from the Bureau of Special Investigations, the Myanmar Correctional Department, the Myanmar Red Cross Society, the nonprofit Myanmar Egress, three activism groups for former political prisoners, the 88 Generation Students Group, and members of five political parties.

“We will try our best to work closely with the government, but we have no power to make the decision,” Bo Kyi said. “I really want other people to know we have no power. They release what the government wants.”

Additional reporting by Nan Thiri Lwin.