Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Weekly Highlights: A First Step Forward for Political Prisoners


4 - 10 April 2016

Weekly Highlights

A First Step Forward for Political Prisoners

Merely a day after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to release political prisoners, many of the detained students and their supporters who had been detained and were awaiting trial for over a year for their part in peaceful demonstrations had their charges dropped and were released on Friday 8 April, 2016. This was undoubtedly a happy day for democracy activists throughout Burma, especially the students, supporters and their families, and could be a potent symbol of the path that the National League for Democracy (NLD) Government is attempting to forge. Yet a sobering reminder of the challenges to overcome that was buried amid the optimism came with the additional two years imprisonment with hard labor that was added to the sentence of two interfaith activists by a court in Mandalay on the same day.

to the President's Office, 113 political prisoners in total were released of which 69 students and their supporters had their charges dropped by Pegu and Tharawaddy Courts. Yet according to the State-run newspaper, the Global New Light of Myanmar, 161 political prisoners were released. For the sake of clarity the Government should release a comprehensive list, including the names, of all political prisoners released.

The students and their supporters had been detained awaiting trial since their role in the national demonstrations, led by the students, against the undemocratic National Education Law in March 2015. Some students remain in jail as they face charges from Rangoon courts but according to a statement by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's State Counselor's Office, their release is imminent, "Today's dismissal was for those who face court hearings today. For others [without hearings today], their dismissal will be after the new year's holiday, when the courts resume their work." The release was categorically welcomed by Burma's civil society and international human rights groups. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP), which has been advocating for over 16 years for the release of political prisoners, "congratulates the NLD government on their decision to act immediately on the political prisoner issue" in a statement released on 9 April. At this buoyant time, it is important not to forget the essential work conducted by such civil society organizations to keep the issue at the forefront of the narrative on Burma's reforms.

Yet such positivity could not be shared by Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt, two Muslim interfaith activists who had an additional two years added to their sentence. They were already serving sentences for alleged violations of the Immigration Act and the additional sentencing was under the Unlawful Associations Act after participating in a peace visit to the Kachin Independence Army's headquarters in Kachin State. According to Matthew Smith, Executive Director of human rights organization, Fortify Rights, the arrests and sentencing are religious and politically motivated, "We're continuing to see this toxic mix of religious discrimination and arbitrary detention in Myanmar. The judicial system continues to punish human rights defenders whose protection should be prioritized."

While repressive legislation remains on the books, and with a judiciary that has long been in the pocket of the still powerful military using that legislation to persecute human rights defenders and democracy activists, the issue of political prisoners in Burma will not go away easily, despite the best intentions of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's Government. In her statement to the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Ms. Yanghee Lee, presented some of the key laws that are used to stifle repression, including Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law – which was used against the students, the Unlawful Associations Act – which is being used against the two interfaith activists, the Official Secrets Act, the Telecommunications Act and various sections of the Penal Code. As Amnesty International stated in a report analyzing political arrests in Burma released in March 2016, "As long as these laws remain unamended and on the books, human rights defenders and other activists will remain at risk of arrest."

Thus, despite the welcome news of the release of political prisoners almost immediately after the NLD begins its term in Government, the hard work is yet to be done. Undoing decades of repression of democracy activists and human rights defenders institutionalized by a politically pliant, corrupt judiciary, the far-reaching power of the military, and a draconian legislative framework will be a long hard road for the NLD Government. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, there should be no political prisoners in democracy. Releasing the remaining political prisoners and beginning such reforms will be the next step forward and it is vital that the issue is not forgotten. According to AAPP, at least 121 political prisoners remain in jail, and 271 more await trial. This is just the beginning, not the end, as accountability, truth, and reconciliation for the abuses that political prisoners have suffered must be part of a process of transitional justice if Burma is to ever come to terms with the past horrors that successive military regimes have inflicted upon its people.

Please note: Burma Partnership will be closed for the Buddhist New Years in Burma and Thailand. We will be back with our next issue of Weekly Highlights on 25 April. Happy Thingyan and Songkran!


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