Small step to freedom in Myanmar
By Brian McCartan
In a move aimed at placating the international community, Myanmar released over
200 of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners on Wednesday as part of a general
amnesty. While few prominent political activists have been freed, the move
begins to meet one of the United States' and European Union's top demands for
normalizing relations and rolling back punitive economic and financial
On October 11, President Thein Sein announced a general amnesty for 6,359
prisoners with an emphasis on the sick, elderly and well-behaved. The
announcement followed on an open letter written by the state-appointed National
Human Rights Commission and published in state mouthpiece media calling for a
pardon of prisoners of conscience who do not pose a threat to stability.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners
Burma (AAPPB) confirmed late on Wednesday that at least 206 of those released
were political prisoners. AAPPB was set up in 2000 by former political
prisoners to document the plight of jailed activists, as well as to provide
assistance to their families. In August 2011, the group listed by name and
punishment 1,998 political prisoners on its website. More detainees are
expected to be released in the weeks ahead.
Among those released were members of several activist groups, including
Generation Wave and the 88 Generation Students group, as well as members of the
Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) party. A number of
Buddhist monks arrested for their involvement in the so-called "Saffron"
revolution in 2007 and members of different armed ethnic groups were also
Among the first to be released was comedian Zarganar, a frequent critic of the
regime through his biting comedic satire. He was arrested in 2008 for
organizing deliveries of aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis, which left at least
140,000 dead, and criticizing the government's response. He was initially
sentenced to 59 years in prison, but on appeal his term was reduced to 35
Prominent female activist, Su Su Nway, was also set free. She was arrested in
2007 and sentenced to 12 years in prison, later reduced to eight and a half
years for hanging a banner near a hotel where United Nations Human Rights envoy
Paulo Sergio Pinhero was then staying. She was a persistent thorn in the
military's side, suing the government in 2005 for using forced labor and
playing a prominent role in the 2007 protests.
Prominent ethnic leader Major General Hso Ten was also confirmed as released.
The 75-year-old ethnic Shan leader served as the chairman of the Shan State
Peacekeeping Council and led the rebel Shan State Army-North. He was arrested
along with Hkun Tun Oo, chairman of the Shan National League for Democracy
(SNLD), and six other Shan politicians who took part in a meeting with senior
political leaders concerning the junta's planned transition to democracy in
Hso Ten was sentenced to 106 years on charges of defamation, association with
illegal parties and conspiracy against the state. At the time, the Shan State
Army-North had a ceasefire agreement with the government. It has since lapsed.
Most of the more prominent political detainees, however, have not been released
and so far their names have not appeared on release lists.
Among the most closely watched are former 1988 student activists Min Ko Naing
and Ko Ko Gyi. Both served lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in
the 1988 student protests that the military brutally suppressed. They later
formed the 88 Generation Students group after their release from prison but
were re-arrested for their roles in organizing the 2007 anti-government
protests. They are now serving 65 year sentences.
High-profile Buddhist monk, U Gambira, one of the core leaders of the 2007
"Saffron" revolution demonstrations, is also still behind bars despite initial
reports he had been set free. Although disrobed in prison, he has continued to
live and behave as a Buddhist ascetic in detention. He was sentenced to 68
years, including 12 years hard labor, for his role in protesting against the
Others still detained on political charges include pro-democracy campaigners,
ethnic activists, journalists, monks and lawyers. Most were arrested and
sentenced under Myanmar's vague and arbitrary laws related to upholding
security and public order. The number of political prisoners nearly doubled
during the crackdown that followed the 2007 demonstrations. The government has
consistently denied it holds any political prisoners.
The government and its security forces are accused of using torture and other
forms of abusive coercion during interrogations. Prison conditions in Myanmar
are abysmal, with several human-rights reports citing the lack of medical care,
food, water and proper sanitary conditions. Political prisoners are frequently
transferred to prisons far from their families. In Myanmar's under-funded
prisons, family visits are important for supplementing a detainee's medical and
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) resumed monitoring
Myanmar's prison conditions in July. The ICRC had suspended its prison visits
in January 2006, saying it was unable to fulfill its independent and impartial
mandate due to government interference. The military regime ordered ICRC's
field offices closed in October of that year.
Prisoners as pawns
The amnesty and release notably comes two days after US Assistant Secretary of
State for Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell said that "dramatic developments"
had taken place in Myanmar while speaking at a Bangkok seminar. He also hinted
at a possible softening in Washington's stance towards the regime, which could
eventually include an easing of sanctions. "We will match their steps with
comparable steps," Campbell said.
United States economic and financial sanctions are not easily repealed and
Naypyidaw will likely have to implement deeper reforms to have them removed
altogether. However, a substantial release of political prisoners will embolden
the vocal, pro-business anti-sanctions lobby and put considerably more pressure
on lawmakers to re-evaluate Washington's stance on Myanmar.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has so far been muted on the
release, but analysts expect it to influence its decision on whether to approve
Myanmar's tenure as the grouping's chairman in 2014. Myanmar's government
requested to be allowed to assume the chairmanship two years early, a move that
showed clearly the new government's desire for international legitimacy.
Human-rights groups, however, are not yet ready to let Naypyidaw off the hook.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the government to
immediately and unconditionally release all remaining prisoners of conscience.
HRW also called for a revision of the country's laws designed specifically to
stifle political dissent. Both groups back the creation of a United Nations-led
Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses perpetuated under decades of
unaccountable military rule.
Myanmar's new government has earned praise for its reformist posture, which has
surprised many observers with its speed and extent. Since the government's
inauguration in March, it has begun a dialogue with Suu Kyi, including a
meeting with President Thein Sein, allowed for greater press freedom and, just
last week, suspended a controversial hydropower development project backed by
China. Yet the release of political prisoners may be the clearest sign yet of
substantive change in the country.
The release marks an abrupt policy shift. At the UN Human Rights Council in
January, Myanmar officials denied holding any prisoners on political charges.
In August, Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko reportedly told the
UN's Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar Tomas Ojea
Quintana that over 100 prisoners who claimed to be political detainees had
actually committed criminal offenses.
Government officials also told the UN envoy that the release would result in
social unrest. The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper quoted Upper House
Speaker Khin Aung Myint as telling Quintana that political prisoners would be
released when it was certain they would not disrupt the "nation's peace and
In the same month, several parliamentarians, including from the bloc of
military appointees who make up 25% of parliament, raised the issue of a
sweeping prisoner amnesty in the Lower House. Significantly, the movement
appeared to be led by former junta No 3 and current Speaker of the Lower House,
Shwe Mann. Military appointees to parliament may have been seeking the release
of fellow military officers, including former intelligence officials imprisoned
during a purge in 2004 that resulted in the house arrest of former military
intelligence chief and prime minister Khin Nyunt.
Other observers are less convinced that lasting change is on the cards. They
point to previous episodes of seeming reform that were reversed once Myanmar
got what it wanted from the international community or critical attention was
diverted elsewhere. Indeed, prisoner releases are nothing new in Myanmar. The
previous ruling military junta granted mass amnesties, although few political
detainees were included. These include a recent release of 14,578 prisoners
that included only 55 political prisoners. Often the releases were accompanied
by quiet campaigns to arrest other activists either during or immediately after
the much-publicized release.
Opposition leader and former political prisoner Suu Kyi welcomed the news of
the releases at a gathering for former political prisoners in Yangon. At the
same time, she urged Thein Sein's government to go further. "The freedom of
each individual is invaluable, but I wish that all political prisoners would be
released," she said to reporters. Released last November, Suu Kyi was held
under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.
With that record of repression and broken promises, Myanmar's government still
has a long way to go before it convinces the international community and its
own citizens that it is sincere about genuine democratic change. Wednesday's
release of 200 political prisoners has been received as a welcome first step,
but there will be substantial pressure for the US and European Union to
maintain their punitive sanctions until all political detainees are set free
and their democratic rights guaranteed.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached
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