Prisoner Groups Highlight Continued Political Detentions, Trials

By San Yamin Aung 5 January 2015

RANGOON — Former political prisoners have revived a photographic campaign calling for the release of all prisoners incarcerated for political reasons and an end to ongoing politically motivated arrests in Burma.

The campaign, orchestrated by the Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), features photographs of former convicts with the names of current political prisoners written on their outstretched palms. A joint statement from the organizations released on Sunday said that there are 164 political prisoners in jails across Burma, with a further 203 activists waiting trial.

“The government is denying that there are any political prisoners who remain behind bars. So through this campaign, we would like to show the international community and locals that there are still political prisoners incarcerated in Burma and we continue to work for their release,” said Thet Oo, a spokesman for FPPS.

Around 80 former political prisoners—including luminaries such as 88 Generation Peace and Open Society cofounder Min Ko Naing and National League for Democracy lawmaker Sandar Min—have joined the campaign, which will be targeted at online media and international rights organizations.

“We members of parliament know there are still political prisoners,” said Sandar Min in a video uploaded by the prisoner associations. “The president announced that he will release all political prisoners by the end of 2013 […] but 2014 is over now and the remaining political prisoners are still not released.”

A similar photo campaign was initiated in 2010 by British photographer James Mackay, aimed at highlighting the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Burmese jails at the time.

Thein Sein has granted amnesties to more than 1,000 political prisoners since he took office in 2011, as part of a broader reform program that has won the president international praise, while others served their sentences to conclusion over the same period.

At the same time the government and political prisoner advocates have been at loggerheads over definitions, with the government previously asserting that all political prisoners had been released at the end of 2013, in accordance with a pledge made by the president in August of that year.

Last November, the government said that the continued incarceration of some 27 political prisoners—a figure well below contemporary estimates by prisoner advocacy organizations—was the result of the inmates committing other criminal acts, and any component of their custodial sentence arising from political crimes had already been annulled by presidential decree.

The government’s figures also belie the number of people awaiting trial for political crimes, in many instances for violating the Peaceful Assembly Law’s controversial Article 18, which has been used to circumscribe protests and prosecute demonstrators.

In a sign that authorities may be willing to pursue more draconian measures against demonstrations, the government last week used assault and incitement provisions under the Burmese Penal Code to charge three people protesting against the Letpadaung copper mining project in Yangon. If found guilty, the protesters could face four years’ imprisonment, three years more than the maximum penalty under the Peaceful Assembly Law.

Prisoner advocacy associations are continuing their efforts to clarify the definition of political crimes in order to hold the government to account over incarcerations and court cases it says are for political ends.

“We are working to get the recognition from the government for the definition of political prisoners. So that, the remaining political prisoners which they are saying committed other crimes will be released too,” Thet Oo said.