Free Last Political Prisoners, Lift Travel Ban: HRW

By Political Prisoners, The Irrawaddy 17 September 2012

The Burmese government should immediately free all remaining political prisoners and lift travel and other restrictions on those already released, urges Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Burmese President Thein Sein issued three amnesties to hundreds of political prisoners in the last year yet 470 are believed to remain behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

HRW called for independent international monitors to be permitted unhindered access to Burma’s many places of incarceration to provide a public accounting of all remaining political prisoners.

“The Burmese government is dragging its feet rather than fulfilling its promises to release all political prisoners,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “Donor countries promoting reform should actively press Burma to meet its human rights commitments by immediately freeing the remaining political prisoners and lifting all restrictions against them.”

Former Industry Minister Soe Thane, now a minister in the President’s Office, said during a meeting in Oslo, Norway, in June that Thein Sein intended to release all remaining political prisoners by July. However, no subsequent release has so far been announced.

Since July 2012, HRW interviewed 12 recently released political prisoners from various ethnic groups who said that the Burmese government placed severe restrictions on them, including on their freedom of movement.

Burma’s Ministry of Home Affairs has refused to issue passports to many former political prisoners, including democracy and human rights activists, public interest lawyers and journalists. The Burmese government has also failed to address significant psychosocial and economic needs of former political prisoners when they attempt to reintegrate into society, said HRW.

Prominent Burmese activist Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Students group, on Saturday canceled a trip to receive an award in the United States in order to show solidarity with more than a dozen fellow activists whose applications for passports have apparently been denied.

“I really value the award given by the National Endowment for Democracy, but I have decided not to travel to Washington to accept it,” Min Ko Naing told The Associated Press. “On principle, I will not travel alone when my colleagues are denied their citizens’ rights. We should be treated as equals and be given passports together.”

Former political prisoners told HRW that they were ineligible to obtain a passport for a period of one year following their release, but no legal basis was provided for this decision. Nevertheless, certain prominent former political prisoners—such as Aung San Suu Kyi, the comedian Zarganar and Min Ko Naing—have been permitted to travel abroad.

“President Thein Sein is denying passports to former political prisoners, just as he is able to travel in the US after years on a blacklist,” said Robertson. “Accepting all passport requests from ex-political prisoners would close one of the huge gaps in Burma’s touted march to reform.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is broadly accepted as reflecting customary international law, provides in article 13(2) that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

“We are not criminals, we were political prisoners. We were released by presidential amnesty. We feel we have a right to re-attend the class,” said former political prisoner Nyein Linn. “We think this is discrimination against the political prisoners. If we were in the university then we would be working for the student union, and the government doesn’t want that.”