RANGOON—In a remote prison in northwest Burma, Aye Aung wakes up each day as he has for nearly 14 years—alone in a dark cell on a wooden plank, a prisoner of conscience all but forgotten by the world.
For hours, the former student activist meditates and reads the books his father brings from afar every other month. But mostly, he lives in the mind-numbing boredom of captivity. Now 36, he has never seen a cell phone, never surfed the Internet, never married or had children.
Although Burma’s military-backed government has released hundreds of well-known dissidents over the past year as part of a startling series of reforms that have earned it lavish praise and an easing of sanctions, rights advocates say hundreds more remain wrongfully locked away—their cases in danger of being forgotten amid rising hope for a more open, democratic nation.
“If this government is really changing, why have they not freed my son?” asked his mother, San Myint, as tears slid down her cheeks during an interview in the former capital.
“He’s done nothing wrong,” the visibly shaken 66-year-old told The Associated Press at her home, where one wall is adorned with a prominent picture of a youthful Aye Aung smiling broadly as he plays guitar beside a friend. “It’s cruel and unfair. We just want him to come home.”
Aye Aung’s troubles began in late 1998, when he was arrested and sentenced months later to a 59-year prison term for his role in a pro-democracy student movement. He had distributed pamphlets and participated in a rare public protest, both of which were deemed by authorities a threat to state security.
His sentence has since been halved, but he still must serve around 15 more years. Until then, he remains incarcerated in the Kalay prison of Burma’s distant northwest, a three-day bus ride from his family’s Rangoon home. His parents say he suffers from stomach problems and sporadic bouts of malaria, and medical treatment in the prison is poor.
Burma, meanwhile, is moving on.
Global investors are lining up to do business. Tourists are arriving in droves. Foreign dignitaries jet in every few days to discuss a brighter future. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Western nations during a visit this month to ease sanctions further and boost aid.
Win Mra, who heads a government-appointed National Human Rights Commission appointed last year, said he has made some attempt to get remaining prisoners on the agenda, but acknowledged it’s not a government priority.
“If there are prisoners of conscience remaining, yes, they should be released,” Win Mra said. “But it’s a moot point right now because there are so many other things happening.”
According to a count by Human Rights Watch, President Thein Sein’s administration freed at least 659 political prisoners over the past year. They included well-known student activists, Buddhist monks who rose up in 1988 and 2007, journalists and ethnic minority leaders.
Since then, however, the issue has largely been dropped because, after the last amnesty on Jan. 13., “the Home Ministry stated clearly that they freed all of them,” Win Mra said.
That any political prisoners were released at all is significant because Burma’s leaders traditionally have denied they exist. The government argues that the accused broke laws threatening security or national stability; rights groups say many were wrongfully convicted and given extreme sentences for actions that would not even be considered crimes elsewhere.
Getting more prisoners released is difficult because many of those remaining in jail are accused of “committing serious crimes—bombings, terrorist activities,” Win Mra added. “It’s pretty complicated.”
In a rare joint statement last week, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for a UN-backed panel to investigate remaining inmates believed jailed for political reasons. The government hasn’t responded.
“Without a proper legal review process, how can anybody be sure” those now in jail were not wrongfully convicted? said David Mathieson, a veteran researcher for HRW.
“It’s obscene that many Western countries are blithely dropping sanctions when there is unfinished business on the political prisoner issue to attend to,” he said.
Like the plight of Aye Aung, another case crying out for review is that of Thant Zaw, a one-time youth activist imprisoned in 1989 for an alleged bomb attack.
Thant Zaw denied involvement, but was beaten and sentenced to death in what Mathieson called “one of the most brutally farcical legal proceedings” in Burma’s history. The actual bomber confessed to the crime, served time and already has been released, Mathieson said.
Min Ko Naing, a leader of a 1988 student movement who was himself released in January, said Thant Zaw and other inmates may still be in prison because authorities “just don’t want to admit they made a mistake.”
But he also said the government was using prisoners as “bargaining chips”—releasing some to prove progress, holding others to push the West to ease more sanctions.
Many also suffer from anonymity. Nobody knows the exact number.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners group has detailed 471 cases, and is trying to verify hundreds more. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton recently put the number between 200 and 600.
San Myint said she and her husband recently found an older list of prisoners of conscience drawn up by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party that was delivered to the government last year. Their son was left out—perhaps by error or ignorance—and many of those on it were freed.
They made sure their son appears on the opposition’s newly compiled list of 280 names.