Guest Column

Myanmar Still Lacks a Meaningful Definition of  ‘Political Prisoner’

By Bo Kyi 19 January 2021

Political prisoners have a long history in Burma, from resistance during the colonial era and continuing through military rule.

The legacy of political prisoners greatly shaped Myanmar’s political parties and the struggle for democracy. Reverence for politicians who sacrificed during the dictatorship is duly earned.

However, an appropriate definition of what constitutes a political prisoner in Burma has never been clear. Tens of thousands have criminal records as a result of unjust laws. They have faced discrimination, lost education and employment prospects, and found themselves in poverty. Currently, 239 political prisoners, including both those who have been convicted and those awaiting trial, are behind bars. In addition, 362 political prisoners who have been released on bail are facing trials.

The international focus on political prisoners after 1988 led to the issue becoming a cornerstone of the foreign policy of the US and the EU. The international community rightly expressed disgust over locking up individuals for expressing their inalienable rights.

The EU has an unambiguous definition of political prisoners. Many EU countries know first-hand the experiences of political prisoners. I have close relations with these counterparts in the Czech Republic and was until recently a Czech national before my Burmese citizenship was restored in December 2020.

The 166th Congress even prepared a bill to enshrine the protection of Burma’s political prisoners in US foreign policy. A 2021 report by the CRS was a sharp rebuke of the civilian government’s progress.

Former Special Rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana in 2011 said political prisoners “continued detention, in his view, is an important barometer of the current condition of civil and political rights in the country.”

Yet, the issue has not been a priority of this civilian government. On the contrary, since 2015 there has been a regression in these rights.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, in coordination with political parties, civil society, and using international legal precedent, regards a political prisoner as:

“anyone who is arrested because of his or her perceived, active involvement, or supporting role in association with activities promoting freedom, justice, equality, human rights, and civil and political rights, including ethnic rights.”

It is in the best interests of the National League for Democracy to immediately adopt this definition. Recognizing our political status and beginning a process for reparations can only make the transition to democracy smoother, promote national reconciliation, and uphold individual dignity, allowing the government to focus on the multitude of social, political and economic demands this country faces.

Definition so far

There are currently 601 political prisoners in Burma, including individuals who are having their livelihoods ruined for their political beliefs and individuals who are now imprisoned and will be treated as supposed criminals upon their release

There are many reasons for this, such as arbitrary detention of ethnic groups in conflict zones. Farmers and activists protesting land confiscations have been detained. And free speech and assembly has been suppressed, actions that are at odds with a democratic state.

Laws and the arbitrary language used by the authorities expose quite literally anyone to imprisonment.

One well-known example is Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law (as amended in 2013).  An individual only has to be accused of “defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence” using a telecommunications network to face up to 2 years imprisonment and/or fine.

In spite of these laws, the charges would not be legitimized, if the government recognized the existence of political prisoners and committed to a comprehensive definition. The government acknowledges the existence of political prisoners every year when AAPPs political prisoners’ lists are informally requested in consideration for the April amnesty.

And yet the government still does not recognize a comprehensive definition.

The recent definition by the President’s Office on Jan. 8, 2021, was too narrow. It does respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in fact is a mere reiteration of a 2016 statement.

Myanmar’s government is currently ignoring political prisoners. It should be adhering to international standards of human rights and democracy, the same standards which supported many of the same politicians when they were in opposition, not turning its back. Further international isolation will only have negative implications for economic and political development.

Parliament will convene on Feb. 1, 2021, and a new NLD-led Government will be soon.

By then, political prisoners must be defined. Our existence is unquestioned. This must be reflected in official status.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and Joint Secretary at the Assistance Association For Political Prisoners.

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