Guest Column

The Name Game: What You Should Know about Burma’s Political Prisoners

By Bo Kyi, Political Prisoners 28 August 2012

In a place like Burma, status as a political prisoner or a prisoner of conscience can be the difference between being released from jail or remaining in prison.

For decades, the military-backed judicial system has been sentencing democracy, human rights, and ethnic minority activists on trumped up criminal charges like murder, robbery and terrorist plots in an effort to discredit, criminalize and degrade their respective movements. Charging activists with violent crimes was and remains a long-term strategy to keep activists locked up and locked out.

In reality, there are two categories of political prisoners in Burma: those who used arm struggle and those who were wrongfully accused of using violence. The majority has been wrongfully accused. The rest are mainly ethnic minorities who were faced with no other choice than to arm themselves against a brutal and lasting military presence. The decision to participate in armed struggle must be viewed against the backdrop of violent crimes committed by the Burmese military and police for decades, and I believe is a reasonable form of political opposition given the severity of the violence perpetrated by Burma.

I can say this with confidence because since September, AAPP has been undergoing a verification process to make sure every political prisoner on our list deserves to be there. Our progress can be found here.

I am dismayed when I hear high-level representatives of countries traditionally loyal to democracy and human rights in Burma recycle regime propaganda: that political prisoners charged with committing violent crimes must be held responsible.

We, as individuals interested in seeing a peaceful and democratic Burma, must recognize the fact that being accused of violence and actually committing an act of violence are two very different things.

The life-altering difference between the terms prisoner of conscience and political prisoner were made all too clear during the Jan. 12, 2012 prisoner release. Only a handful of ethnic minority representatives were released. This blanket exclusion drew sharp criticism from the democracy movement, including my colleague Min Ko Naing, who publicly stated that many ethnic minority dissidents still languish behind bars. Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ko Ko casually dismissed this fact, going so far as to accuse the remaining dissidents as being linked to the Taliban.

AAPP has always called for the release of political prisoners, not just prisoners of conscience, in order to be as inclusive as possible of all those who have been unjustly imprisoned for their political beliefs. And because I am not satisfied with the release of only prisoners of conscience in Burma, I have been branded as a hard-liner.

If I am a hard-liner it is because I want Burma to achieve its goal of national reconciliation, and I know that cannot happen until all ethnic minority political prisoners jailed for unlawful association or taking up arms against the Tatmawdaw (Burma Army) are released and allowed to take part in ceasefire negotiations if they choose to do so. Several ethnic political parties have consistently stated that they refuse to take part in any ceasefire negotiations until their members are released from prison. Lasting peace will always be just out of our reach until these political prisoners are unconditionally released.

Every time someone calls for the release of prisoners of conscience in Burma, the majority of ethnic minority political prisoners behind bars are being excluded. Prisoners of conscience exclude, for example, ethnic minority leaders such as Naing Soe, a leading member of the All Arakan Students and Youth Congress (AASYC), sentenced to six years on bogus charges of trafficking drugs and arms, among other things. The AASYC, a political organization working towards democracy through non-violent means, is no stranger to being branded a terrorist organization by the government. Many of its members have been arrested on spurious charges of domestic terrorism and treason.

Prisoners of conscience also exclude internally displaced persons who have sought shelter from Burma’s aggressive attacks by fleeing to an area controlled by an ethnic armed resistance group. They are then wrongfully accused of working with an unlawful organization and sent to jail.

Armed ethnic resistance groups exist because ethnic minorities are constantly threatened, marginalized, and subject to violence by the Burma Army. They face little option other than to defend themselves, their people, and their land. These groups look forward to the day they can demobilize, disarm, and resume their normal lives to reap the benefits of a democratic Burma.

Keeping them in prison as “terrorists” or “criminals” while others are released will only engender mistrust and pessimism on the side of the ethnic minority groups. And without trust, there can be no foundation for a genuine national reconciliation process. How can an ethnic minority group believe the government if their leaders and members remain behind bars?

Dwe Bu, an ethnic Kachin member of Parliament, speaks for all representatives from ethnic minority areas when he stated in July 2012, “Our Kachin people have been suffering a great deal under article 17/1 [the Unlawful Associations Act] for many years. They [the government] arrest people who they are unsure about…this could make people distrust the government and armed forces.”

As a first step, I urge the government to immediately lift the unlawful association ban against ethnic resistance groups, so as to show its sincerity in negotiating on equal terms and making a commitment to releasing ethnic minority political prisoners.

If I am a hardliner it is because I do not want any individual imprisoned for their political beliefs to be left behind. Whenever someone calls for the release of prisoners of conscience they are excluding many activists who are behind bars on outrageous criminal charges. Even though they were arrested for non-violent political offenses, such as taking part in peaceful demonstrations or collecting funds for prisoners’ families, the government sought to criminalize their political behavior in an effort to degrade the democracy movement.

To the government, U Myint Aye is a criminal. The 61-year-old is co-founder of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters Network (HRDPN), an organization formed to raise awareness among the people of Burma on their rights under the UN Declaration on Human Rights. In 2008 U Myint Aye was wrongfully convicted of a bomb plot as well as offering cash awards to terrorists. He is one of many who might fall through the cracks and remain behind bars.

If I am a hardliner it is because I know personally how painful it is to be forgotten about when in prison. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech apply to Burma’s political prisoners who risk being left behind: “To be forgotten is to die a little.”

At this critical juncture in Burma’s history, the U Thein Sein administration cannot afford to spare any effort in making sure every individual behind bars on political grounds is immediately and unconditionally released, with a wiping of their criminal records. The first step in restoring justice to those who have sacrificed their lives behind bars for democracy and human rights is to use the term political prisoner, not prisoners of conscience.

The only way to ensure that no one is left behind is by establishing a joint review board with a mandate of verifying the number of remaining political prisoners in Burma. The board should be transparent, independent, accountable, and include non-governmental organizations as well as former political prisoners. Similar calls have been made by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, Burma Campaign UK, US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, and UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Tomas Ojea Quintana.

In 2007 the UN Security Council, in referring to Burma’s quest for national reconciliation, emphasized that the future of Burma lies in the hands of all of its people. Four years later, and the hands of hundreds remain unjustly behind bars and in shackles. The world needs to make sure they are not left behind by calling for an investigation into the numbers of remaining political prisoners. This would be a start in ensuring that the transition to democracy is inclusive and the aspirations of the people for genuine national reconciliation are fulfilled.

Bo Kyi is the joint-secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, which is based in Mae Sot, Thailand. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect editorial policy of The Irrawaddy.