Myanmar Political Prisoners Panel Moving Slowly Amid Ongoing Arrests

A protester writes "Stop political arrest" on a placard during a Jan. 5, 2014 protest in Yangon calling for an end to repressive laws and politically related arrests.
A Myanmar government-led panel has been dragging its feet on amnesties for political prisoners, as nearly 60 of them languish behind bars despite President Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political detainees by the end of last year, a watchdog group said Tuesday.

Authorities continued to arrest political activists in 2014 in spite of the pledge, which Thein Sein never fulfilled, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) said.

As of the end of May, at least 59 people were serving prison sentences on political charges, according to the AAPP, a Thailand-based group.

It also said 85 people were awaiting trial on political charges.

The government officials leading the Committee for Scrutinizing Remaining Political Prisoners is not moving quickly to address their cases, or those of political prisoners held since before this year, AAPP’s Joint Secretary Bo Kyi said.

“The activities of the [committee] have been delayed during this year,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We were only able to hold two meetings within six months and we don’t know when the next meeting is going to be,” he said.

The panel was set up by Thein Sein last year to resolve remaining cases after he issued a series of presidential amnesties releasing several hundred political prisoners since January 2012.

The committee includes several human rights groups, including the AAPP, but how often it meets is determined by its chairman, President’s Office Minister Soe Thein, Bo Kyi said. 

The AAPP has also been refused permission to visit jails and interview prisoners freely as it had been promised, he said.

“We still have different perspectives on recognizing political prisoners,” he said.

Ongoing arrests

Most of those arrested over political cases this year have been charged under a controversial provision known as Section 18 of the Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession or under Article 505 (b) of the penal code, he said.

The Law on Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession bars protests without a permit, and Article 505 (b) of the penal code prohibits spreading statements that cause alarm or induce others to commit an offense against the state or the public.

The ongoing arrests mean that dangers to journalists, farmers, demonstrators, and political activists “are as real as ever,” the AAPP said in a joint statement last month with the Yangon-based Former Political Prisoners’ Society (FPPS).

“The arrest and imprisonment of peaceful demonstrators under laws designed to restrict civil liberties is not unfamiliar in Burma, and continues unabated in 2014,” they said, using the former name for Myanmar.

Broken promise

The two groups also raised concerns about prisoners who were jailed before this year and have remained imprisoned despite Thein Sein’s pledge.

Thein Sein made the pledge while on a visit to the U.K. in July 2013, in part to address concerns by the U.S. and other Western nations about his commitment to bring about political reforms.

“AAPP and FPPS have recorded evidence that this promise was not fulfilled,” the two groups said.

Government claims that the pledge had been fulfilled in a presidential amnesty that saw hundreds of political prisoners released in December were false, the groups said.

“The end of 2013 saw numerous government statements that convinced much of the outside world that all political activists had been freed from Burma’s jails,” the two groups said.

“These statements not only served to undermine the plight of those political activists still in jail at the beginning of 2014, but also shifted focus away from the ongoing restrictions and harassments of political activists,” the two groups said.

Thein Sein has released more than 1,000 political prisoners as part of a number of reforms he has enacted since coming to power in 2011 after five decades of military misrule.

Rights groups have welcomed the releases but raised concerns about fresh arrests under the same charges, saying they discredit any government commitment to ridding the country of political prisoners.

They have also voiced alarm about activists re-arrested shortly after their release on presidential pardons, accusing authorities of adopting a “catch–release–catch again” policy in a bid to silence activists.

The releases have been a major factor in decisions by Western nations to ease sanctions imposed because of Myanmar’s poor human rights record and undemocratic rule under the former military regime.

Reported by Kyaw Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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