By Wai Hnin Pwint Thon
Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK
Earlier this month, the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a very insightful paper on the situation of political prisoners in Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s record in handling the problem. It is a welcome report as the issue of political prisoners has fallen down the political agenda internationally, as well as in Burma. It is encouraging that the US Congress will consider concerns regarding political imprisonment within overall US foreign policy on Burma.
When Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) came into government in April 2016, a lot of human rights activists – including me – hoped for an end to Burma’s issue around political prisoners, especially given that Aung San Suu Kyi herself and more than 100 of her members of parliament were former political prisoners themselves. They knew the importance of the issue and they knew how it felt to be persecuted simply for speaking out, or for peacefully protesting. But it was a false hope. We have subsequently seen many more people arrested for criticising the government, peacefully protesting, or simply posting on Facebook.
The CRS paper on “Burma’s Political Prisoners and U.S Policy” highlighted that, despite the NLD’s campaign pledge that “they would not arrest anyone as political prisoners”, many people continued to be intimidated, arrested, detained and imprisoned for political reasons.
The paper underlined one key problem: there is no agreement on the definition of a “political prisoner” in Burma. While many civil society organisations regularly use this broader term, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese military insist on using the term “prisoners of conscience”, thereby excluding many ethnic civilians who are being arrested for allegedly helping or working with the ethnic armed groups which are deemed illegal by the government. Furthermore, whatever term might be used, the reality is that some of the detained ethnic civilians are tortured horrifically to produce “confessions”.
For example, in 2012, Thein Sein’s government arrested Lahpai Gam, a Kachin farmer, and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for allegedly serving as a solider with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). During his interrogation, he was repeatedly kicked, beaten, forced to drink water mixed with fuel, and to have sexual intercourse with one other male prisoner. In 2014, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a ruling that the Burmese government’s detention of Lahpai Gam was arbitrary, and demanded his immediate release.
So, naturally when Aung San Suu Kyi took office in April 2016, Lahpai Gam’s family were hopeful that he would be released soon. But it took Aung San Suu Kyi and her government two whole years to recognise the UN ruling, eventually releasing this innocent man in 2018. Arbitrary arrests of people like Lahpai Gam are ongoing today. Since the Burmese Government declared the Arakan Army (AA), which is fighting the military in Rakhine and Chin States, as a terrorist organisation, many Rakhine ethnic civilians have been arrested on suspicion of helping the AA. The prospect of the US Congress pressuring the NLD-led government to revaluate and repeal legislation such as the Unlawful Associations Law is therefore very welcome.
Moreover, it is disappointing to see fewer and fewer political prisoners included in the annual Presidential Pardon since the NLD came to power in 2016. Although the issue of political prisoners was somewhat similar to a revolving door with continuous arrests and releases under the previous Thein Sein government, at least we saw a larger number of political prisoners receiving amnesty during Burmese New Year every April. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), 115 political prisoners were included in the 2016 Presidential Pardon while only 10 were included in the total numbers of 24,896 being pardoned in 2020.
How can we believe that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is taking Burma on the road to a genuine democracy while many activists are still facing arrest and intimidated for speaking out? The paper pointed out the willingness of Aung San Suu Kyi and her government to use repressive laws to supress freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom and assembly. Media freedoms have also declined, and many journalists face imprisonment for trying to report on current affairs. In 2020, the freedom of expression activist organisation, Athan, reported that 36 journalists faced trial under the current government and twenty of those cases were engineered by government officials themselves through the use of repressive laws such as the Official Secrets Act, defamation legislation and the News Media Law.
The US State Department declared that:
“Despite the transition to a civilian-led government, we continue to see a troubling use of colonial and military-era government laws to restrict freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, religion or belief, and association. While some of these cases have been brought by the military, others have been brought by civilian leaders. This includes cases of the government or military prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs, including recent charges against journalists for covering violence in Rakhine State and/or interviewing the Arakan Army.”
Repealing and amending repressive laws is the first step towards solving the political prisoners issue in Burma so it is encouraging to see the continuous effort by the State Department in helping “civil society to support efforts to repeal, amend, or decriminalize laws used to stifle freedom of expression, religion, and press, as well as provide psychosocial and rehabilitation support to current and former political prisoners.”
Additionally, it is welcome news that the issue of Burma’s political prisoners will be a focus of the 117th US Congress, including with a call for the unconditional release of all political prisoners and the repeal of repressive laws. I really hope that this will bring an international spotlight on political prisoners, because without the unconditional release of all political prisoners, Burma has no hope of achieving genuine democracy or national reconciliation.