Political Prisoners Miss Out in President’s New Year Amnesty

By Nyein Nyein & Htet Khuang Lin 18 April 2019

YANGON—Despite the release of more than 9,500 inmates under the Presidential pardon for this New Year’s holiday, many political prisoners remain behind bars, disappointing their families as well as observers.

On Wednesday, President U Win Myint pardoned 9,551 prisoners, including two political prisoners and 16 foreigners, under the New Year amnesty. He pardoned 8,541 prisoners last year, including 36 political prisoners and 51 foreigners.

The President’s amnesty order stated that they were given unconditional amnesty, “as a gesture for marking the Myanmar New Year, to ensure the peace of mind of the people and taking into consideration humanitarian concerns.”

According to the president’s order, “the remaining prisoners are also under consideration for further releases.”

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), there are still 44 political prisoners serving time in prisons, 90 detainees facing trial and 228 who are on bail but are required to appear before the courts for their political activities.

Two political prisoners released were Maran Gun from Obo Prison and L Zau La from Myingyan Prison in Mandalay Region. Both had served 19 years of their life sentences, according to the AAPP. The two were both members of the Mongko Defense Army from Shan State’s Special Region No. 1, a splinter group of Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. They were prosecuted in 2000 on narcotics charges.

AAPP secretary U Bo Kyi said, “Political prisoners are not those destroying society; they are the ones who are trying to build a better society. If [the government] wants genuine national reconciliation, all political prisoners should be released without conditions.”

He told The Irrawaddy that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government “should learn the lessons of the past. The country is now at a turning point, as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was also released from detention and cooperated. Thus, if the incumbent government released the political prisoners and worked with those relevant persons, better results would be achieved for national reconciliation.”

Most of the prisoners released were serving long sentences on convictions related to illicit drugs, according to U Min Tun Soe, the deputy director and spokesman of the Myanmar Prisons Department under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Although there were 675 prisoners released from Yangon’s Insein Prison, the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone (aka Thet Oo Maung) and Kyaw Soe Oo, who are serving seven-year prison terms under the Official Secrets Act, were not among them. The pair, who were arrested in December 2017 and convicted in September last year, were on Monday awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, one of the world’s most prestigious journalism prizes.

In addition, U Zaw Zaw, the head of Insein Prison, told The Irrawaddy that the Rakhine political prisoner Dr. Aye Maung and author Ko Wai Hin Aung, who are serving 20-year prison terms; and the former child soldier Aung Ko Htwe, who is serving a two-and-a-half-year term, were not included on the pardon list.

U Myint Kyaw, the joint secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, said he was not surprised that Reuters journalists were not on the pardon list, although he believed charges not be brought against journalists who are doing their jobs.

He said that while the pair has been sentenced to many years behind bars, “It seems [the government] does not consider their cases as political. Perhaps they have not yet been released because their appeals are not yet exhausted.”

Family members of political prisoners and other former political prisoners also expressed their frustration with the amnesty order, seeing it as oppression against journalists, politicians and the activists.

U Tin Maung Win, a Lower House lawmaker representing Rathaetaung constituency of Rakhine State and the son of U Aye Maung, said he did not expect a pardon “as it is questionable whether Dr. Aye Maung deserved to be prosecuted.”

He added that the verdict was “unfair and the government can do anything, whether it’s to arrest or to release them.”

U Aye Maung and Ko Wai Hin Aung were each sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for high treason and another two years for defamation, to be served concurrently, by Sittwe District Court on March. 19. They were both transferred to Insein Prison on April 6.

U Thein Win, the brother of Ko Wai Hin Aung, said his family did not expect his brother’s release under the pardon, and thus would proceed with his appeal to the higher court this month.

Ma Nay Zar, the sister of ex-child soldier Aung Ko Htwe, said while waiting for any news about her brother in front of Insein Prison on Wednesday that she did not expect justice for him. Aung Ko Htwe was sentenced in March last year after the military charged him over a media interview in which he claimed he was abused by authorities during his first trial.

She said Aung Ko Htwe’s term would end in December this year, but another inmate who was sentenced to a longer term than her brother had been released on April 12. “The law is different for each person; if we demand his release, we could also face some other charges,” she said, referring to an earlier case in which two supporters of Aung Ko Htwe were sued and sentenced to a year in jail for incitement in September. We expected justice, but now we are experiencing unjust laws,” she told The Irrawaddy.

Daw Lay Lay, who was repeatedly sentenced to prison for her political activities

under previous governments as well as the current government, said the government ignored political prisoners even though President U Win Myint himself was once one of them.

She questioned whether two different laws or two governments ruled Myanmar, asking, “Is the President exercising his authority, or is there any pressure [on him]?”

U Tin Maung Kyi, a member of the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF) who was released from prison two weeks ago, said Myanmar should not have any political prisoners under the elected civilian government, and said the government was demonstrating its incompetence.