Release Political Prisoners Before Polls, Says Rights Group

By Nobel Zaw 16 July 2015

RANGOON — A group of former political prisoners has called on Burma’s leadership to release all prisoners of conscience before elections slated for November.

The Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS), a collective of rights advocates that served time under Burma’s former military regime, appealed to lawmakers and political party leaders in an open letter on Wednesday for a blanket amnesty of incarcerated activists and those awaiting trial on politically motivated charges.

“We want all political prisoners and people who face trial for their political actions to have the right to vote freely and participate in the election,” FPPS secretary Tun Kyi told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. A similar request was made to President Thein Sein in early June, but the group has yet to receive a response.

Tun Kyi referred to Thein Sein’s earlier promise of freeing all prisoners of conscience by the start of 2013. While thousands of prisoners were released since he took office in 2011, observers were quick to point out that he did not meet that goal.

A political prisoner scrutiny committee continues to identify wrongful incarnations, though some of the more independent members of that committee were controversially excused from the duty earlier this year.

“The President’s term will end soon,” Tun Kyi said, “so if he takes this opportunity [to release remaining political prisoners], he can meet his own commitments during his term.”

Hundreds of political prisoners were released in a general amnesty in the lead-up to by-elections held in 2012, including leaders of the 88 generation student movement Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi.

By late June of this year, however, the number of political prisoners in Burma was still at 169, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The group said there were an additional 446 activists awaiting trial for political activity, including student demonstrators and farmers rights activists.

Almost of half of those in prison or awaiting trial have faced or now face charges under Burma’s controversial Peaceful Assembly Law.

The law has come under heavy criticism, particularly a clause known as Article 18, which requires advance permission for gatherings. In the latest international condemnation of the law, the US Embassy in Burma released a statement on Thursday expressing concern over continued reports that it was being used to stifle freedoms.

“Upholding an individual’s ability to exercise his or her basic rights of peaceful expression and assembly is central to any democracy, and fundamental to the on-going reform process,” the statement read.

“Free exercise of these rights will be particularly important during the upcoming election season as a measure of the election’s transparency, inclusiveness and credibility, and we urge authorities to ensure those democratic rights are protected in the coming months and beyond.”

Aung Myo Kyaw, secretary of AAPP, backed the FPPS’s call for amnesty, arguing that unjust sentencing of peaceful political actions undermines the narrative of democratic reform.

“If the country is really going through a reform process, it shouldn’t sentence people with Article 18. [The government] should release these prisoners and drop those charges,” he said.