Political Prisoner Release Tallies 52, With 78 Still Behind Bars: AAPP

By Tin Htet Paing 22 January 2016

RANGOON — Fifty-two political prisoners were released from penitentiaries across Burma on Friday, while 78 remain and hundreds more are still facing trial on politically motivated charges, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which called on the government to release the outstanding prisoners of conscience.

The amnesty ordered by President Thein Sein involved the release of a total of 101 Burmese nationals and one New Zealander, Phil Blackwood, who was sentenced last year to 2.5 years in prison for religious defamation.

“The president has granted amnesty following the successful conclusion of 2015 elections, the first Union Peace Conference and the commencement of ‘The World Buddhist Peace Conference,’ said President’s Office director Zaw Htay on Friday morning, via his Facebook account Hmuu Zaw.

Among nine penitentiaries to discharge political prisoners nationwide, Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison and the lockup in Karen State’s Hpa-an released the largest totals, at 19 prisoners of conscience each.

Aung Myo Kyaw from AAPP told The Irrawaddy that the number of remaining political prisoners stood at 78, since the Kachin aid worker Patrick Khum Jaa Lee was sentenced to six months in prison just hours after the presidential amnesty over a Facebook post deemed to have defamed the Burma Army.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the AAPP, said Friday that the advocacy group would continue to demand the release of all political prisoners, without exception, citing student activists, land rights campaigners and journalists who remain behind bars as cases outstanding.

“We appreciate the release. But what we, and international organizations, are demanding is to release all political prisoners, without any exception,” he told The Irrawaddy.

“The country would benefit more if they were released and given a chance to play suitable roles for the country, instead of keeping them in prison cells,” he continued. “It can also be an obstacle to national reconciliation.”

Although the release of Blackwood and 13 protestors of a military land-grab in Rangoon’s Michaungkan quarter dropped high-profile causes from AAPP’s docket, several prominent names will remain on its list of political prisoners.

In one recent case, Chaw Sandi Tun was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in late December for sharing a photo collage online that compared revamped uniforms worn by Burmese military personnel to the apparel worn by National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi. Chaw Sandi Tun was not among those released on Monday, according to her mother.

Tin Lin Oo, a writer and former NLD member, was also passed over, according to AAPP. He is serving a sentence of two years in prison with hard labor after he argued, at a literary festival, that discrimination on racial and religious grounds was incompatible with the central tenets of Buddhism. For that, a court deemed him guilty of “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings.”

Five members of the Unity journal were also excluded and will continue to serve their seven-year sentences in a case that saw them found guilty of revealing state secrets in an article printed by the publication.

AAPP says additionally, more than 400 activists are still facing trial on politically motivated charges and were not considered in the amnesty.

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Burma this week and called on the outgoing government to free all remaining political prisoners before the NLD takes the mantle at the end of March.

New York-based Human Rights Watch released a statement the same day, arguing that the Thein Sein government could leave behind a positive legacy by “immediately and unconditionally” freeing all remaining political prisoners.

“Thein Sein shouldn’t wait for the new government to take office in late March to free those who should never have been imprisoned in the first place,” the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said in the statement.

Thein Sein has released more than 1,000 political prisoners over the course of his five-year political term.