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.
Perhaps the most abused tenet of the Act is Section 18, which requires permission for public protest. Myint Aung is just one of many who have been charged under this provision. Thirteen activists from the Peace Network, a coalition of local organizations, were charged after organizing a march on International Peace Day to draw attention to the civil war in Kachin State. The activists applied for a permit, but were denied by authorities. According to local media, some 200 people around the country are currently facing charges for protesting without permission.
Human Rights Watch has called for the Public Assembly Law to be amended to conform to international standards. “The authorities have denied protest applications on spurious grounds,” the organization said in statement this year. “[They] used the peaceful assembly law to prosecute rather than protect those exercising their basic rights.”
Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, has said that the recently arrested activists should be defined as political prisoners. Yet officials have refused to consider those that have been charged in the last year and a half under the Public Assembly Law in the government’s broader efforts to address the political prisoner issue.
Earlier this year, in response to continued pressure from the international community and rights groups, the government established the Committee to Scrutinise Remaining Prisoners of Conscience. While the government has framed the committee as a way to address the remaining political prisoners, activists have criticized its limited mandate, arguing that it is simply another example of the government using political prisoners to project an image of reform.
“There is a tension between what the government has grudgingly agreed to and what former political prisoner groups would like to see,” said David Scott Mathieson, senior research on Burma at Human Rights Watch. “The government basically wants to resolve remaining prisoner cases and assuage international pressure on the issue.”
Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and a member of the committee, added: “The president set up this committee as a showcase to the US to remove the remaining sanctions,”
Indeed, sanctions—and other measures of diplomatic re-engagement—still propel the politics of Burma’s reform. While the United States has suspended most of the sanctions it imposed during the military years, it retains targeted restrictions on individuals and entities, including travel bans and investment limitations. Burma is eager to normalize relations with the West—not only with regard to the removal of sanctions but also to spur enhanced trade and military cooperation. It is not a coincidence that on the same day that Thein Sein publicly committed to releasing all remaining prisoners, his host, Prime Minister David Cameron, offered increased military cooperation. As Mathieson notes, “The government has used political prisoners as pawns in a domestic and international bargaining game for years.”
While Mr. Cameron may be impressed, former prisoner groups and civil society organizations expected much more—hoping that the political prisoner committee would be used to end continued arrests, repeal laws that stifle dissent and address the discriminatory treatment of recently released prisoners.
Last year, Human Rights Watch reported that the government had placed severe restrictions on released prisoners. Some former prisoners have not been able to travel outside of the country—others have been denied access to universities. Moreover, the government has shown no interest in financial reparations for those that suffered years of imprisonment and torture. Despite lobbying from activists, the committee is not permitted to consider these issues.
But while the government seeks to whitewash the abuses of its past, it cannot run from those in the present. “Many new laws contain provisions that are being used to deter basic freedoms such as the freedom of assembly,” Mathieson argues. “Unfortunately, many in the international community see prisoner release as the end of the story and shower the president with praise, when there is clearly much work that still needs to be done.”
Fortunately Burma’s citizens have taken up that mantle, demanding accountability on land confiscations, military abuses, and constitutional reform under threat of arrest. And despite the president’s rhetoric, at the end of the year the activists that sit behind bars will still be political prisoners.
Barbara Crossette on Burma’s rapid, but incomplete transformation.