Political Prisoner Pledge, Govt Actions Don’t Align: Activist

By Lin Thant, Political Parties 2 August 2013

President Thein Sein reiterated a promise this week that Burma’s jails would be free of political prisoners by the end of the year, a pledge that a prominent activist says is doubtful unless authorities change their prosecutorial tendencies.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said he welcomed the president’s commitment to free all political prisoners by the end of this year, but pointed to recent detentions of activists as reason to be skeptical of the claim.

“There have been continuing arrests of activists, those who were fighting for certain rights, farmers and workers. So I am unconvinced as to whether it is possible that there won’t be any political prisoners [by the end of 2013],” he told The Irrawaddy.

In his monthly radio address to the nation, Thein Sein on Thursday spoke in no uncertain terms of his intention to follow through on a promise he first made during a trip to Europe in July.

“I inform the public that in accordance with my pledge, I am going to make arrangements to ensure that not a single political prisoner [remains] by the end of this year,” Thein Sein said. Dozens of political prisoners were released about a week after he made the same vow on July 15 in London.

Bo Kyi is also a member of a government committee established by Thein Sein in February to assess the cases of the country’s remaining political prisoners.

Thein Sein in his radio address said the 73 political prisoners released following the London speech were granted amnesties in the interest of national reconciliation, and were freed as a result of the scrutinizing committee’s work.

However, the response of Burma’s deputy home affairs minister to a question posed in Parliament early this week highlighted the precarious legal status of former political prisoners.

Asked whether former prisoners of conscience were still liable to face the time remaining on their sentences, Brig-Gen Kyaw Zan Myint said that according to Section 401(1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, any former political prisoner convicted of another crime would be required to serve not only his new prison sentence, but also the remaining years of his old, canceled sentence.

That penal provision caused an outcry in May, when Nay Myo Zin, a former political prisoner who was freed in a January 2012 amnesty, was told he would be forced to serve out the remaining six years of his 10-year sentence after he was found guilty of defaming a police officer in an unrelated charge. The defamation charge carried with it just a three-month jail term, but Nay Myo Zin found himself facing the combined sentences under Section 401. Following the outcry from activists, he was released a few weeks later.

Thein Sein’s government has already declared batch amnesties 22 times, and 2,701 prisoners have been released as a result.

Noting the deputy home affairs minister’s response before Parliament, Bo Kyi said it was clear that coordination between Thein Sein and his cabinet ministers was lacking.

“The president said that he would not use Section 401 as a political weapon, but there hasn’t been any cooperation between high-level staff and low-level staff of the government to make what [the president said] come true. The departmental cooperation is still very weak,” Bo Kyi said.

“All former political prisoners who were released have the same concern: whether they will ever be arrested again. Their rights to freedom are limited and controlled,” he added.

There remain more than 200 political prisoners in jails or facing trial in Burma, according to AAPP. The group estimates that there are 120 political prisoners who are in jails and another 100 still on trial.

“What we are really asking for is releases with no exceptions,” Bo Kyi said. “When a political prisoner is released, it is best that he/she has a note on the release warrant that says the prisoner is released with no exceptions or parameters.”