Released women prisoners make their way out of Insein Prison in Burma, October 12, 2011. (Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)
On July 15, on an official diplomatic visit to the United Kingdom, Burma’s President Thein Sein pledged to release the country’s remaining political prisoners by the end of the year.
The announcement came just hours after local police in Rakhine State detained an activist named Kyaw Hla Aung. A prominent Muslim human rights lawyer, Kyaw Hla Aung was arrested after a demonstration against discriminatory citizenship rules in the country’s restive western region turned violent earlier in the month. Despite not attending the protest, Kyaw Hla Aung has been charged with, among other things, “hiring of persons to join an unlawful assembly.” He has been in detention ever since.
Last week marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Burma’s 1988 uprising. What began as a student movement quickly spread when monks, civil servants and ordinary citizens organized a general strike across the country to protest the junta’s authoritarian rule. It is remembered not only for the violent military crackdown that followed but also for the generation of dissidents that it spawned.
The arbitrary detention of those perceived to be critical of the government—many of whom were first detained in the aftermath of the 1988 protests—came to define the brutality of the military regime. Activists, writers and dissidents spent years in prison for daring to demand democratic reform.
Much has changed in the last two and a half years. Since Burma’s 2010 election—the first multi-party vote in twenty years—the government has implemented a series of significant reforms, including the release of thousands of political prisoners sentenced by the military regime. For a government looking to shed international sanctions and encourage direct investment, the release of prisoners was an obvious play to assert its democratic bona fides. And while many activists contend that the releases were a red herring for the West—a calculated diplomatic chip that masks a myriad of ongoing rights abuses—there is no question that the current government has come a long way in redressing the junta’s tendency to place its detractors behind bars. After the most recent amnesty of seventy-three prisoners, which came on the heels of the president’s announcement in London, there are thought to be about 100 political prisoners in the country.
But while authorities have publicly committed to putting a period on this disturbing legacy by the end of the year, a swath of recent arrests have called that commitment into question as activists like Kyaw Hla Aung continue to be detained for peaceful acts of protest.
In June, a court in Monywa sentenced Myint Aung to one year of hard labor in connection with protests against the expansion of the Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine. Myint Aung, the joint secretary of a local nonprofit, has been a leader in organizing villagers whose land was seized for the mine project. His crime: organizing a demonstration without permission—illegal under a new peaceful assembly law.
The Law Relating to Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession was enacted in December 2011. The new legislation, which has been praised by Western governments, in theory protects the right to free assembly. And while this assembly law is less severe than those that were used by the junta, it still includes a number of problematic provisions. The law makes it a criminal offense to say anything that could hurt the state or disturb traffic during peaceful acts of protest.