Guest Column

President Obama: Turn Lip Service on Burma’s Political Prisoners into Action

By Bo Kyi 16 November 2012

President Obama, Burma’s President Thein Sein has decided to welcome your historic visit next week by granting an amnesty to criminal offenders “for establishing stability of the State and eternal peace.” The recent amnesty will go on record as being the most disappointing yet for Burma’s political prisoners. Not one political detainee has been included in the release.

In the face of what will hopefully be the last in a long line of insincere and limited prisoner amnesties, I urge you to extract concrete promises from President Thein Sein to free all political prisoners now. We deserve real change, not more of the same.

President Obama, even though it has been over 18 months since the Thein Sein administration assumed power, hundreds of political prisoners are still behind bars in savage conditions.

Your trip to Burma next Monday comes at a time when the human rights situation has fallen apart throughout the country, even as the quasi-civilian administration continues to receive global praise for initiating skin-deep reforms.

The Thein Sein administration has slashed basic freedoms, including freedom of expression and assembly. No one knows how many remain wrongfully detained in Burma because the government will not allow credible and impartial organizations to enter the country’s detention centers.

Although my organization has documented at least 283-plus imprisoned activists, we believe the number to be much higher, especially in ethnic minority regions like Kachin and Arakan states, where sweeping arrests and enforced disappearances are a daily reality. Torture and cruel conditions of detention remain widespread throughout Burma’s prisons, and the detention death toll continues to rise.

In July, a 19-year-old boy was unlawfully detained and then tortured to death during interrogation. The responsible police officers at Mayangone police station in Rangoon claimed he died due to illness. However, the body bore unmistakable signs of torture. The police have so far successfully resisted the family’s efforts to pursue criminal charges against the torturers.

It has been over one year since the government of Burma ordered the release of 6,359 prisoners. Among the thousands were 247 political prisoners, including respected leaders like female labor activist Su Su Nway and famed satirist Zagarnar. It was one of the biggest single releases of political prisoners at that time, and a joyous moment for democracy and human rights in Burma.

In January of this year, more of our freedom fighters were returned to us in a watershed moment in Burma’s history. An unprecedented 336 political prisoners were released, including the iconic poet and activist Min Ko Naing and outspoken dissident monk U Gambira.

Excited campaigners around the world called for the prison gates to open wider. For the first time, we believed that the prisons in Burma would be completely emptied of all political prisoners. Unfortunately this has not been the case. The revolving door in and out of prisons for Burma’s dissidents continues.

The real test to ensuring the prisoner releases lead to meaningful reform is whether the government will stop imprisoning people for speaking their mind or criticizing the government or military. While it is extraordinary that 769 political prisoners have been released since May 2011, the escalating number of arbitrary detentions has given pause to the celebration. Since January 2012, there have been at least 200 politically motivated arrests, with fewer than 60 leading to formal court proceedings. Rarely do political detainees leave detention knowing whether they are being indicted or not.

In a manner reminiscent of the previous military junta, the current government is using backwards legislation to persecute people who have ideas that conflict with state interests. The newly introduced Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, championed by foreign governments, is the main driver behind the increasing number of arrests. The bill is responsible for stamping out peaceful processions throughout the nation, and is even being used retroactively. Activists who joined the widespread protests calling for sufficient electricity supplies in Mandalay in May have been charged by the city’s police for demonstrating without official permission. This is despite the fact the protest bill had not even come into effect yet. The bill was also most recently used to charge a dozen peace protesters who were marching for an end to civil war in Kachin State.

Strong-arming by foreign governments like the United States helped force President Thein Sein to initiate a series of political prisoner releases. Finally, after over five decades of brutal military rule, sanctions and coordinated global pressure began to chip away at the state-endorsed repression against the people of Burma.

The suspension of sanctions was a big mistake. Five months later, none of the benchmarks outlined by the United States, including the release of all political prisoners, have been met. These benchmarks were supposed to be met before the lifting of sanctions, not after. Worse, there are no conditions for the re-imposition of sanctions. This gives the government of Burma a blank check to do whatever it pleases, with no repercussions.

President Obama, as a twice-elected president of the most powerful country in the world and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, your moral responsibility and authority to support the blossoming reforms in Burma has increased.

On countless occasions, the people of Burma have demonstrated that they want to free themselves from the grip of the so-called civilian regime. They have bravely taken to the streets in record numbers to condemn the lack of electricity, government-backed land confiscations, despicable labor conditions, and ongoing civil war in Kachin State. The legitimacy granted by foreign governments like the United States has only given confidence to the ruling administration to visibly suppress critical voices.

The government of Burma has responded to increased engagement by publicly beating activists and ethnic minorities, dragging them to detention centers where they can be subjected to sexual humiliation among other forms of torture, and forcibly disappearing others. In June, two unnamed ethnic Kachin men were forced to have public sex with other men during their detention in Myitkyina Township. In the face of credible documentation of torture and extrajudicial killings in ethnic minority regions like Kachin State, President Thein Sein shamefully continues to dismiss the claims as “one-sided accusations.”

The United States and other foreign governments have shown little interest in the worsening human rights situation in Burma. There is a concern that your visit will send the wrong message to the government of Burma at a time when nascent reforms have yet to take root.

Please use this visit as an opportunity to review US policy on Burma and discuss how the cause of human rights can best be advanced, with an emphasis on freeing all remaining political prisoners.

President Obama, the hundreds who remain wrongfully detained need action to secure their freedom, not more lip service. I urge you to privately and publicly pressure the government of Burma to take immediate and sincere steps to release all of the remaining political prisoners.

Credible steps should include official recognition of the existence of political prisoners, a timetable outlining their release, and allowing an independent monitor to have reliable and unfettered access to all of the detention centers in order to determine the remaining number of political prisoners. I also urge your administration to hold the Thein Sein administration accountable by monitoring progress.

The Burmese government’s suppression and the international community’s disregard for the people of Burma is driving the reform process backwards. Please don’t make the mistake of working with the government to the detriment of the people of Burma. Help the people realize their full spectrum of human rights and finally close Burma’s dark chapter of political prisoners so we can move forward to a brighter, more democratic future.