RANGOON — Burma’s new government will face challenges releasing political prisoners and reforming the system responsible for their continued existence when it assumes power next week, says an Amnesty International report released on Thursday.
Amnesty’s report showed increased political detentions and imprisonment over the past two years, and highlighted the challenges the new government will face while the military retains broad control over law enforcement and a repressive legal framework remains intact.
The report documented at least 90 current prisoners of conscience, and hundreds of other activists in detention or waiting for their trials to end.
Most political prisoners are held for protesting without permission under Article 18 of Burma’s Peaceful Assembly Act, or under the Penal Code’s Article 505(b), which prohibits spreading statements that are likely to cause alarm or fear to the public, a clause criticized as a vague catch-all for anything the government deems dissent.
Despite an air of new openness and reform since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, the cycle of politically motivated arrest and release has continued. Since 2011, over 1,100 political prisoners have been released, but these pardons have often been timed to major events, in order to gain international plaudits and political leverage.
In August 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a press release that stated, “No one is arrested or charged with simply exercising their rights peacefully.” And in 2013, Thein Sein promised, “By the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar.”
But he failed to follow through on his promise. And London-based Amnesty’s research showed a recent backsliding on reforms, and insidious tactics being used to punish students, land rights activists, human rights defenders and other peaceful protestors. These tactics included trying people for multiple offenses or in multiple townships in order to lengthen their sentences.
This happened in 2014 to Naw Ohn Hla, who was charged for her involvement in a peaceful protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon, calling for an investigation into a police crackdown on land rights activists at the Letpadaung copper mine. Because the protest took her through five other townships, she was charged and convicted in each township separately. As a result, she is currently serving a sentence of more than five years in prison for participating in a single protest.
Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) have indicated that freeing political prisoners will be among the party’s top priorities when it assumes power on April 1. The new NLD-dominated Parliament includes more than 120 former political prisoners.
Laura Haigh, Burma researcher at Amnesty, said her organization had high expectations for a swift prisoner amnesty.
Bo Gyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and incoming President-elect Htin Kyaw would try to negotiate with the military to release all political prisoners, but that the NLD government would not have much power when handling this issue.
Under the country’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, the army controls the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the police force and the prisons department. The NLD must work with the Home Affairs Ministry, and success will be difficult without the political willingness of the military commander-in-chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.
Bo Gyi added that without addressing the root causes of political repression, such as land confiscation, civil war and judiciary reform, political prisoners would remain a problem.
Haigh agreed that the draconian legal code needed to be amended. She said the common refrain from authorities is, “We are acting in accordance with the laws.”
“The problem is that these laws do not comply with human rights standards,” she said. “As long as they’re on the books, we will continue to see arbitrary arrest and detention and politically motivated prosecutions.”
Both Bo Gyi and Haigh stressed the importance of continued international pressure in resolving these issues.
Haigh said the authorities in Burma are susceptible to international pressure, and the more pressure put on the issue, the better to stem these abuses, even if results aren’t immediate.