Conflict & Justice

Another 73 political prisoners go free in Myanmar

Myanmar's government today released 73 political prisoners indicating that more could be freed in coming months, as the president promised during a recent trip to Europe, according to Reuters.

Former general and now president of Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, Thein Sein, has managed a number of political and economic reforms since the long-time military government stepped down in 2011.

Facing demands from rights groups, he has in his time freed hundreds of political detainees and made promises for more in an effort to ease the pressure from rights groups and international sanctions.

Last year, IRIN Asia — a humanitarian news and analysis organization — reported that rights groups, including Burma Campaign UK, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), were calling for the “final release” of remaining political prisoners—then numbering more than 300, including 26 monks.

Calls for release continue to be made, as recently as June 7.

Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners — an organization “staffed entirely by former political prisoners that provides assistance to political prisoners and monitors and documents human rights” — released a statement last month “kindly acknowledging” President Thein Sein’s words, but asking for more action.

The statement requested that the president commit to “emptying Burma’s prisons of all political prisoners and ensuring no one is arrested for their political beliefs or activities.”

During a trip to Britain last week, Thein Sein vowed to free the remaining detainees by the end of this year.

"A total of 73 political prisoners are being released from various detention centers today," Hla Maung Shwe, a member of the Committee to Scrutinise Remaining Political Prisoners, told Reuters. "The total number of remaining political prisoners has now dropped to lower than 100 for the first time in many years."

An Assistance Association for Political Prisoners list of political detainees—most recently updated in May of this year—marked 183 remaining prisoners prior to today’s amnesty.

“Today’s release of political prisoners is another welcome step forward, however, there is still much work to be done,” David Swanson, head of desk in Bangkok for IRIN, told GlobalPost in an email interview. “Many of the laws that put these people in prison in the first place are still in place.”

Indeed, an article published yesterday on Asian Correspondent also takes issue with the laws that call for arrest. The article, which is critical of the British government’s praise of Thein Sein last week, notes that Myanmar continues to add political prisoners to its collection because rather than eliminating the laws under which they were arrested, the government is simply making them less blatant.

“For those recent additions to the country’s jail cells, the London speech will ring hollow,” the article said. “It may be that the concept of a political prisoner is being repackaged for future use – the more overtly political charges, for example the Video Act or Unlawful Association Act, may be sidelined in favour of seemingly more legitimate ones: negligent homicide or inciting public unrest, for example – ones that other democratic countries like the UK use, and who would therefore have more trouble criticizing the Burmese government for using.”

Thein Sein's government has set up a committee to examine and decide which prisoners are being held for criminal acts and which ones are there for political reasons.

The 19-member committee includes 10 former political prisoners, six government appointees and three mediators, including Hla Maung Shwe, who told Reuters that the committee “meets once a month and we expect the remaining political prisoners will be freed by the end of this year as the president said during his recent visit to Europe."