Burma Campaign UK today welcomed the announcement by the office of President Thein Sein that a Committee will be formed to review political prisoner cases in Burma.
The formation of the committee was originally announced in November, with a promise that arrangements would be discussed by the end of 2012. Five weeks after this deadline, the President has again announced the committee will be formed. It has still not been formed yet. Its exact membership has not yet been decided and it is not yet clear what the exact mandate will be.
It may be the first time that the term political prisoners has been officially used since Thein Sein became President, but Than Shwe’s government did use terms like this, such as ‘political detainees’, when releasing almost 500 political prisoners shortly after he came to power, so it is not unprecedented.
Burma Campaign UK, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma, HRW, and other NGOs have been campaigning for the creation of a committee to review cases of political prisoners in Burma. Governments in turn have also advocated for the creation of a committee of this kind.
However, the detail of who is on the committee and what its mandate will be will be critical in assessing whether this is a genuine attempt to resolve the issue of political prisoners in Burma, or merely yet another half-measure designed to alleviate international pressure without introducing fundamental democratic reforms and guaranteeing human rights.
Ten key questions that need to be addressed:
1) There must be independent international experts involved. Without this the credibility of the committee will be in doubt, both in terms of genuine independence and in terms of its expertise.
2) The independence of the committee is questionable. It is chaired by Minister U Soe Thane, from the President’s office, and will contain other government representatives, which gives grounds for concern about how independent this committee can be. If the government and President have so much control, will it be able to make recommendations that the President does not agree with?
3) The committee will decide on the definition of political prisoners. This must include those arrested under laws which while not overtly political, were only applied because of a person’s political activities. For there to be lasting peace and reconciliation, it must also include members of Burma’s armed ethnic organisations.
4) The civil society organisations involved will be critical. It is welcome that organisations such as the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma, 88 Generation Students and National League for Democracy have been informally approached about joining the committee. Representatives of other civil society organisations, including ethnic representatives, must also be included.
5) Will the committee have a budget? Other committees announced by the government have not been allocated proper funds to operate, meaning they have been restricted in their capacity to work by lack of finance, and there have been questions about the lack of transparency relating to externally donated funds.
6) No timeframe is given for submitting findings to the President. Experience with committees established so far is that the process is very slow, which in this case would leave hundreds of political prisoners still in jail for a significant time.
7) It is not clear if the committee is temporary and will close after submitting its report to the President. The committee needs to be permanent as almost every repressive law is still on the books, and people are now being arrested and jailed under new laws supposedly giving people more rights, such as the so-called right to protest law. The repressive laws that are used to jail political prisoners must also be repealed as part of this process. In the two years since becoming President, Thein Sein has left almost every repressive law in place. Until all repressive laws are repealed, there will continue to be a need for this committee to review individual cases.
8) The statement says that prisoners may be released, but it is not yet clear if this will be as full pardons, or conditional. Most political prisoners released so far have only been released conditionally. Any releases made as a result of this committee’s work must be full unconditional pardons, and this must also apply to those political prisoners who have already been released. The unconditional release of all political prisoners is a benchmark set by the EU for the suspension of sanctions.
9) There is no mention of compensation and special support for those who may be released. Many political prisoners suffer health problems, including mental health problems, as a result of being kept in appalling conditions and/or torture. The families of political prisoners also face severe financial problems. No political prisoners released so far have been offered any compensation and support for costs such as healthcare.
10) No justice, accountability or reconciliation. The release of political prisoners will naturally be part of a process, but it must not be forgotten that justice and accountability must be part of that process. Political prisoners should never have been in jail in the first place, and there must be some form of justice, accountability and reconciliation. To date, Thein Sein has never admitted that political prisoners should not have been jailed, and has never apologised.
“It is not yet clear if this committee will genuinely address the issue of political prisoners, or will just be used by President Thein Sein to counter criticism from the international community,” said Wai Hnin, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK. “It is important now that the international community doesn’t just welcome this committee as good enough and forget about political prisoners. They must apply pressure to ensure it genuinely addresses the problem.”