RANGOON — After five political prisoners walked free in Burma on Tuesday and 200 people saw charges dropped for political offenses, protesters gathered at the notorious Insein Prison to demand freedom for other political prisoners who will likely remain inside a little longer.
About 200 protesters, including activists and family members, gathered in front of the prison in northern Rangoon, urging President Thein Sein to stick to an earlier pledge to release all remaining political prisoners by Tuesday, Dec. 31.
Dozens of political prisoners remain behind bars but are expected to be released during the first week of January.
“People are shouting, calling for the release of remaining prisoners,” said Myat Min Thu, whose brother Tin Htut Paing had been detained in Insein while facing trial. “My brother was just released and he joined the protest.”
Thein Sein has granted a pardon to prisoners convicted of various political offenses, including unlawful association, violations of the peaceful assembly law and contempt of government. In a presidential order published on Monday by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the president said all political prisoners should be released by Tuesday.
“We welcome the government’s release of the prisoners of conscience,” said Talky, a spokesman in Rangoon for the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). “But we still need to wait one more week for the release of the remaining political prisoners, who were convicted in criminal cases.”
Five political prisoners were freed Tuesday, according to government-backed committee that reviews the number of political prisoners behind bars and works toward their release. The AAPP is represented on that committee.
Thein Sein also said Monday that charges should be dropped against defendants on trial for allegedly committing political offenses, but that activists could still charged in the future with political offenses.
AAPP says charges have been dropped for 200 defendants, five convicted political prisoners were freed Tuesday, and 46 political prisoners still remain behind bars.
Among those freed from Insein Prison on Tuesday were activists Yan Naing Tun and Aung Min Naing, both jailed for violating Article18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which requires would-be demonstrators to receive permission from relevant government authorities before staging a protest.
A member of the Shan State Army, Aik Pan, was released from Taunggyi prison in Shan State, along with Ye Min from the Pa-Oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO), another ethnic rebel group. San Htwe, a member of the Karen National Union (KNU), was released from Moulmein Prison in Mon State.
Two activists who were detained while standing trial, Tin Htut Paing of the Generation Youth activist group and Ye Min Oo, were also released.
“We hope Htin Kyaw and Naw Ohn Hla will also be released soon,” said Talky, referring to two detained activists who are facing trial. Naw Ohn Hla, a prominent figure in Burmese activism, is facing charges for participating in a protest in Rangoon in which a Chinese flag was burned, and for allegedly disturbing religious gatherings while holding prayers for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi back in 2007.
In a separate amnesty earlier this month, 44 people were freed, including 41 political prisoners. That followed the release of 69 prisoners in November, including two grandsons of the late Burmese dictator Ne Win and about two dozen activists charged for violating Article 18.
Tun Kyi, a member of the Former Political Prisoners Group, said he was encouraged by the Burma government’s move to release political prisoners but said others could still be put behind bars so long as restrictive laws remained on the books.
He criticized Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law as well as Section 505 of the Penal Code, which allows for imprisonment for causing fear or alarm to the public, or for inciting others to commit an offense against the state or public tranquility.
Also according to the Penal Code, any former political prisoner who is freed in an amnesty and later convicted of another crime will be required to serve not only the new prison sentence, but also the remaining years old, canceled sentence.