October 12, 2011

Small number of prisoners released a reality check for those believing promises of reform.

Burma Campaign UK today expressed disappointment at how few political prisoners have so far been released under a new prisoner amnesty in Burma. Many senior political prisoners also remain in jail.

There are between one and two thousand political prisoners in Burma. Many have been tortured, have been moved to remote prisons making it difficult for families to visit, are kept in squalid cells, and denied proper access to medical care.

So far it look as if the final number released will be in the low hundreds. By contrast, former dictator Than Shwe released 427 political prisoners when he came to power in 1992, claiming to be a reforming President.

“The release of all political prisoners is a key test for judging whether the Burmese government is serious about claims it is reforming,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK, and daughter of political prisoner Ko Mya Aye, who was not released today. “By releasing so few prisoners, the government just failed that test. This is more like the political prisoner releases made by the previous dictatorship, a relatively small number with one high profile prisoner, this time Zarganar, to get positive publicity. I am extremely disappointed.”

Many NLD members, and leaders of the 88 Generation Students, such as Min Ko Naing, remain in jail.

Since becoming President earlier this year Thein Sein has launched a charm offensive, making promises of reform and very slightly relaxing censorship in the country. However, he is yet to enact any concrete democratic reforms.

Those describing Thein Sein as a moderate should more accurately describe him as a pragmatist. His goal is getting sanctions lifted, not transforming Burma into a democracy. Thein Sein oversaw the drafting of Burma’s new constitution which legalises dictatorship. He may be willing to make more concessions than previous dictators to try to get sanctions lifted, but as the limited scale of today’s releases shows, he will try to get the maximum benefit from the minimum concessions.

The low number of political prisoners releases places these releases in the same category of many similar releases in Burma over the years. It is mostly about public relations, not a sign that change is on the way. Combined with the significant increase in human rights abuses by the Burmese Army, including use of gang-rape against ethnic minority women and children, the outlook for genuine reform in Burma remains bleak.

“The release of political prisoners should be welcomed, but these releases are not enough to justify the lifting of any sanctions”, said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon. “Today is a day of joy for the families of those who have been released, but for many more it is a day of sadness and disappointment, as their father, mother, husband, brother or sister remain in jail. This is a reality check, change hasn’t come to Burma yet.”

A background briefing on previous prisoner releases in Burma is available at: https://burmacampaign.org.uk/burma_briefing/political-prisoner-releases-in-burma/


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