After the presidential pardons were announced on May 7, prison riots broke out in Shwebo, Kalay, Myitkyina, Tharawaddy, Pathein and Hpa An prisons. Inmates at Kalay Prison demanded both an equal opportunity to receive a presidential pardon and the opportunity to hold meetings with both the media and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission. At Shwe Bo Prison, authorities cracked down heavily. Four prisoners died and two were injured.
Such riots are uncommon in Myanmar’s prisons. The government issued a statement saying it believed someone or some group was behind the prison riots and that the government would investigate.
There are many reasons for prison riots. The first thing we need to know is that the Prisons Department is under the control of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Under the 2008 Constitution, the minister is appointed by the commander-in-chief. Generally, the ministry has responsibility for prison management.
One factor in these riots is that prisoners used mobile phones, which had been smuggled into the prison, to live-stream the disturbances on social media. All of the rioters had very similar demands. They wanted to be included in the presidential pardon.
Inmates are not allowed to use mobile phones in prison. Phones are a restricted item. It is common knowledge that mobile phones have long been smuggled in to prisoners with the help of prison staff. Nowadays, not only mobile phones but also drugs can get into prisons. Prison authorities cannot prevent staff or inmates from smuggling restricted items into prisons.
The other thing is that there are many orders and regulations in place to prevent prison riots. However, prison authorities failed to follow the orders and implement regulations.
The riots also raise questions over prison management. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ policy, all prisoners are equal. Under that concept, prisoners are placed in the same category. Actually, there should be different categories based on the crimes they committed. In addition, the prisons are understaffed, so prison authorities are forced to rely on the inmates themselves to help maintain order.
Prisoners are incarcerated in overcrowded cells with poor food and inhumane conditions. They all want an early release. It is understandable that they are angry at not being released along with those who are pardoned.
Presidential pardons are issued by the president.
The system of pardoning needs to be properly explained so we can see who was released and why. Here a unilateral decision taken without any accountability or transparency causes extreme confusion and creates conditions ripe for the spreading of rumors and misinformation.
Had the criteria for selection for release been communicated to prisoners, they would understand why some were selected and others not. However, as it stands they don’t know why some were chosen and other missed out.
Now, a number of actions need to occur. Firstly, there should be an independent investigation undertaken immediately into the causes of the riots and the deaths of the four prisoners at Shwebo Prison. The government should set up a prisoner-scrutiny board that includes government representatives, Ministry of Home Affairs officials, Parliament members, the director general of the Prisons Department, the Attorney General, ex-prison officers, ex -judges, law experts and civil society and party leaders and so on. The board should review all prisoners’ cases. Thirdly, prison conditions in Myanmar remain overcrowded and inhumane. Prisoners’ human rights are violated on a daily basis. These conditions need to be improved immediately.
For a long time, Myanmar’s Prisons Department was under the Ministry of Justice, and this should be the case again.
Finally, these riots happened because the existing complaints mechanism for prisoners is so weak. There is a dire need to create an adequate complaints mechanism for prisoners. This would not only allow the Prisons Department to improve prisons in line with prisoners’ needs, but also let prisoners feel that they have a voice. If they do not have a voice, their frustration turns to exasperation, which turns into riots.
Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and currently works as joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
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