One Political Prisoner is One Too Many

By Bo Kyi 31 August 2016

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of Burma. Elections in November 2015 brought the first democratic government in decades. Last year, dozens of political prisoners were granted amnesty and released. Laws restricting core political freedoms such as speech, association and assembly have been relaxed.

However, a great deal of work remains to be done, both by the Burmese government and by the international community. It is imperative that the international community continue, by all means available, to encourage respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the new Burma. In the immediate term, the international community must continue to press for the release of all remaining political prisoners.

While the November elections were a milestone for Burma, we should not be overconfident about how much power these democratically elected officials actually have. Their control over Parliament, and the government at large, is constrained by the military-drafted 2008 Constitution.

Only 75 percent of the members of the Union Parliament, our national legislative body, are democratically elected. The other 25 percent of the members are military officials appointed by the Commander-in-Chief. Seats are also reserved for military personnel in the divisional and state legislative bodies. This constitutional requirement cannot be amended unless more than 75 percent of the members of parliament agree; for the 25 percent reservation to be eliminated, some members representing the defense services will have to vote to strip themselves of power.

The constitution also mandates that the elected President must choose high-ranking military officers to head the defense, home affairs and border affairs ministries. The Commander-in-Chief—Burma’s top military officer, who stands apart from the President—nominates these officers. These ministries control all law enforcement mechanisms other than the judiciary; the police force falls within the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Defense controls the Border Guards.

Furthermore, the large cadre of government officials, required in the administration of any modern nation, is comprised of individuals who have secured their livelihoods on the basis of loyalty to the military regime. Many, if not most, of the management-level civil servants are former military officers. Some of these individuals see their positions as payment for service to the military.

Reconciling a new, democratic government with autocrat-supporting civil servants is a challenge faced by every country in transition, with varying degrees of success. There are no easy answers to this problem. For example, the summary termination of thousands of government employees during the “de-Ba’athification” of Iraq both caused widespread unemployment and left the government unable to provide basic services.

On the other hand, keeping current civil servants in power may mean that the policy decisions made by elected leaders are thwarted by the people who should be enacting them. Even assuming that these officials wish to cooperate with a civilian-led government, the management and working styles of civilian activists and ex-military personnel may not gel.

After the democratically elected government assumed power in April of this year, they announced the release of political prisoners as a top priority. My organization, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma, has confirmed that charges have been dropped for 163 activists who were awaiting trial, 115 of whom were released from pre-trial detention; and 70 convicted political prisoners have been released.

However, between those prisoners who were not released and the new arrests and convictions over the past three months, there are currently 285 political prisoners in Burma. This is simply unacceptable.

Political prisoners still exist, in part, because laws that restrict speech, assembly, and association—freedoms vital to a free society—are still on the books in Burma. Though laws requiring associations to register with the government have been relaxed, they have not been completely repealed.

Speech remains restricted as well, with laws purporting to regulate telecommunications instead prohibiting “act[s] detrimental to the security of the State or prevalence of law and order or community peace and tranquility or national solidarity or national economy or national culture.” This broad, vague prohibition has been used to jail activists for expressing an opinion using electronic technology. Freedom of assembly is restricted by laws requiring protestors to receive official permission before staging a protest.

These restrictions on political activities are anathema to a free society; reform is necessary, and until such reforms are undertaken, the arrest and trial of individuals under these laws must be halted.

Everyone loves a success story, but, while it has seen great progress, Burma is not yet a success. Many challenges remain. The constitution still vests great power in the military. Laws still exist allowing security forces to detain protestors and activists. People are still jailed for their beliefs. One political prisoner in detention is one political prisoner too many; Burma has 285 too many political prisoners. It is simply too soon to ease the pressure on entrenched elements of the old government.

Most of these challenges are not immediately solvable. It will take a long time to unwind the military’s influence over the bureaucracy, and an extraordinary solution will be necessary to remove the military’s influence over Parliament. However, the ongoing situation for political prisoners can be resolved with a stroke of the pen. The international community must press for this immediate change that could improve the lives of many and promise continued progress towards a free Burma.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner and one of the founders of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma, which has been advocating for the release of all political prisoners in Burma since 2000.