Data Project Seeks to Record Stories of All Political Prisoners From 1962-2013

By San Yamin Aung 21 January 2014

RANGOON — Activists are attempting to compile the first comprehensive list of political prisoners who were jailed in Burma from the military coup in 1962 through 2013, and to record information about their experiences behind bars.

The data collection is being conducted by the Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), two advocacy groups that have compiled lists of former political prisoners in the past but never across the entire country and over such a long period of time.

“The only aim of the data collection is to record all political prisoners in history because we need to at least recognize and honor the sacrifices they made as activists for the country,” Tun Kyi, a member of the FPPS, told The Irrawaddy.

A one-month pilot effort began on Jan. 13, with data collected in Chin State as well as Rangoon, Bago, Magwe, Mandalay and Sagaing divisions, according to Aung Myo Kyaw, a spokesman for the AAPP. Twelve data collectors, all former political prisoners, are gathering the information.

“We will collect all the details of political prisoners, including their experiences during inspections and in prison, their profiles, and also their current conditions,” he said, adding that the National League for Democracy (NLD), the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society were collaborating in the effort.

In the past, he said, activist groups have lacked sufficient data to effectively advocate on behalf of political prisoners and former political prisoners.

“We haven’t had definite data while talking to the international community and the local government. Before this, nobody knew the number of political prisoners or their information,” he said.

Since assuming office in 2011, President Thein Sein has freed more than 1,000 political prisoners. He says he has fulfilled a promise to release all remaining political prisoners by the end of 2013, although activists say that some are still behind bars.

Tun Kyi of the FPPS said his group and the AAPP would record information about the financial condition of former political prisoners, their education, medical state, and social challenges they faced in reintegrating into society.

“At present, the lives of [former] political prisoners are really difficult. They require financial and health assistance,” he said.

As organizers of the decades-long democracy movement, many of Burma’s former political prisoners have emerged as prominent journalists, activists and leaders of civil society, but many struggle to find stable employment.

Tun Kyi said some former political prisoners appeared healthy after their release from prison but continued to suffer from damage to their internal organs, potentially from physical abuse, as well as mental conditions such as depression.

He called for the adoption of legislation to protect former political prisoners.

“The law for political prisoners is urgently needed, like in other countries, to cover all political prisoners and help them get assistance,” he said.

The FPPS and the AAPP are providing career training for former political prisoners, including computer training and driving training. They are also offering financial assistance from the U Win Tin Foundation, led by former political prisoner and NLD leader Win Tin. Counseling services are provided with funding from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.