Activists skeptical as Myanmar gov’t frees political detainees

Rangoon – Although presidential spokesman Ye Htut announced “there are no more political prisoners,” in a December Facebook post, activists and ex-prisoners in Myanmar are expressing skepticism.

“I would like to say that the president has fulfilled his promise given to the people, because there will be no political prisoners at all at the end of 2013,” Ye Htut wrote, according to a report in India’s Dainik Jagran newspaper.

His Facebook post gave no further details.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit organization founded by Myanmar ex-prisoners living in exile, claims in a report dated January 13, 2014 that at least 33 political prisoners remain jailed and another 136 are awaiting trial.

“We cannot say at this moment whether there are no more political prisoners. We are waiting and watching,” said Thet Oo, an activist with the organization Former Political Prisoners (FPP).

A ‘New Burma in Old Hands’?

Myanmar was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011. The military regime jailed — and allegedly tortured — thousands of dissidents, artists, lawyers and journalists.

When President U Thein Sein took office on March 30, 2011, he became the first non-interim civilian president in 49 years. On July 15, 2013, he pledged to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013.

By November 2013, 29,820 prisoners were released, according to a report in the Myanmar Times.

The amnesties, coupled with other political reforms such as deregulation of the press, won U Thein Sein international praise and persuaded western countries to lift sanctions against Myanmar.

Critics claim the reforms don’t go far enough.

Many of the pardoned prisoners had been convicted of high treason or other offenses under the Unlawful Association Act, which bars contact with illegal organizations; section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Protest Law; or section 505(b) of the Penal Code.

Although the prisoners have been released, the laws remain in effect.

“Pardons are good, but not having to issue them is even better,” wrote David Scott Mathieson of Human Rights Watch on January 2.

The Nation reports that the pardons do not cover anyone arrested after December 31, 2013.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy , called Myanmar ” a faux democracy in the hands of old military rulers,” in a recent editorial.

“It is true that Thein Sein is no longer a general, but he was one of the highest ranking members of the former junta, and his allegiances have not changed. Along with most of his cabinet members, the majority of parliamentary members and the leaders of the armed forces, he is part of a third generation of dictatorship in Burma,” he wrote.

Ex-prisoners Demand Government Confess, Apologize

On January 2 the FPP and the AAPP organized a ceremony to honor political prisoners who have died in government custody since 1988.

Activist Min Ko Naing called the government’s behavior “shameless,” the Myanmar Times reports.

“The current government has to take steps to deal with their behavior toward political prisoners. They must apologise for their behavior,” he said.

U Hla Thein’s older brother, U Sein Win, died in Insein prison.

“All did not deserve to die in the way they did. I think government should take responsibility for their action,” he said.

Myanmar Becomes Chair of ASEAN

Critics charge that prisoner releases are often timed to create positive headlines during important diplomatic events. In November 2013, 69 prisoners were released the day before U Thein Sein attended the 23rd ASEAN summit.

The latest wave of presidential pardons comes as Myanmar assumes the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

ASEAN, founded in 1967, is an organization of 10 member states committed to increasing economic growth and political stability in the region. Myanmar was slated to assume the coveted chair in 2006, but was forced to renounce it amid storms of criticism of its military dictatorship and human rights record.

“Burma can’t even get its own human rights house in order, how can it be expected to lead regionally on human rights?” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters in October 2013.

Assuming the ASEAN chair means that Myanmar will also take a leading role in the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). This trading bloc of ASEAN member states is expected to compete aggressively for markets outside the region.

According to a U.S.-supported study, a successful AEC could mean a 66 percent increase in exports for Myanmar, coupled with a 4.4 percent increase in national income.

For now, government officials seem willing to shrug off criticism and paint a bright picture of Myanmar’s future.

“Now is Myanmar’s time in the sun,” U Thein Sein told ASEAN members at an October 10, 2013 meeting.