Burma Campaign UK today welcomed the release of a significant number of political prisoners, including members of the 88 Generation Students and journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma, but also cautioned the international community not to forget those political prisoners still left behind in Burma’s jails.
Since coming to power last year, Thein Sein’s military-backed government had only released just over 300 political prisoners, less than his predecessor Than Shwe when he came to power. 651 prisoners are being released today. It is not yet clear how many are political prisoners. However, many of those released today are reported to be high profile activists such as 88 Generation leader Min Ko Naing, ethnic Shan leader U Khun Tun Oo, and monk leader U Gambira.
The release of so many high profile prisoners is undoubtedly a major step, and a vindication of the strong line countries such as the UK and USA have taken in insisting that all political prisoners are released before major economic sanctions are lifted.
These releases take place after UK Foreign Secretary William Hague delivered a strong message that sanctions will not be lifted without real progress in key areas, including the release of all political prisoners. Late last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a similar message.
“I am so happy that my father and many other political prisoners are free at last,” said Wai Hnin, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK, and daughter of Ko Mya Aye, a political prisoner who was released today. “I am also worried though because they freed and then later arrested my father again in the past. The unjust laws under which he was jailed have not been repealed. I don’t feel sure that they won’t jail him again if he carries on his political activities.”
The way in which political prisoners are being released raises concerns that rather than releasing political prisoners because it is the right thing to do, they are being treated as bargaining chips in a tit-for-tat process in getting sanctions lifted and gaining international legitimacy. Some of those released today have been arrested and released on several occasions to try to avoid international pressure. The last time Min Ko Naing was released was on the eve of a debate on Burma at the UN Security Council, where a Resolution on Burma human rights abuses was being proposed.
The military-backed government is also still disputing that political prisoners even exist. Political prisoners are being released but with no apology and no acknowledgment that they should never have been in jail in the first place. They still have criminal records, and receive no compensation, no support for the medical care they need to recover from torture, mistreatment and psychological abuses. They receive no support to rebuild their lives. There is no attempt at reconciliation. Instead they are expected to be grateful for being released. All the laws under which they were arrested remain in place. Some political prisoners freed last year were just put outside prison gates in remote areas with no means of getting home.
It appears some or all prisoners are being released today with conditions that if they are arrested again they will serve the new prison terms, and the old prison term they didn’t finish serving will be added to it.
“Today we have something to celebrate, but the problem of political prisoners in Burma isn’t over yet,” said Wai Hnin. “Even if all 651 prisoners released today are political prisoners, that could still leave over 600 political prisoners in jail. The next step must be for the International Committee of the Red Cross to be able to go into jails to make an assessment of how many political prisoners are still in jail, and then they must also be released. None of these people should ever have been in jail in the first place.”