In a move praised by local and international rights groups, Burma’s government, led by ex-general Thein Sein, has released 56 political prisoners.
However, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) noted in a statement to the media that 133 political prisoners were still languishing in the country’s prisons.
“Their release does not officially acknowledge their political status and ensures they are released with conditions restricting their freedom. It is unacceptable that the old prison sentence still hangs over them once they have been freed,” the AAPP said.
AAPP is a political prisoner advocacy and human rights organization based on the Thai-Burma border that works for the release of all political prisoners in Burma and for the improvement of conditions in the country’s notorious prison system.
The AAPP said it was aware of over 200 political activists awaiting trial. The majority of whom were being charged under section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code, a controversial law that requires protests to be signed off by the authorities before they can go ahead. Sometimes facing multiple official rebuttals, protests go ahead ‘illegally’ – protestors caught doing so can face hefty prison sentences and severe fines.
The AAPP is critical of Section 18 and said, “despite the importance of releasing political prisoners, the ongoing detention of protesters and activists perpetuates the idea that political and human rights defenders will continue to face persecution.”
The challenges facing former political prisoners are considerable. Due to the restrictions placed upon them by Article 401 – which acts as a form of parole – their freedom after prison is not unconditional.
“Their release does not officially acknowledge their political status and ensures they are released with conditions restricting their freedom. It is unacceptable that the old prison sentence still hangs over them once they have been freed.”
Release comes as more political protestors face prison time
On July 15, Burmese President Thein Sein committed to free all prisoners of conscience by the end of 2013, where in a London visit he met British PM David Cameron, and said, “I guarantee to you that by the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar,” he said, “We are aiming for nothing less than a transition from half a century of military rule and authoritarianism to democracy.”
However, dozens of activists throughout the country have since been arrested and prosecuted for protesting. This includes two staff members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters— U Aung Myint, age 44, and Hla Myo Naing, age 34—who were arrested in Irrawaddy Region on September 5 and September 17, respectively, after providing awareness-raising trainings on human rights to local communities.
Other arrests since the President’s July statement promising reforms include: Naw Ohn Hla, 52, a prominent activist sentenced on August 29 to two years hard labor for protesting a Chinese-led copper mine in Sagaing Region; U Kyaw Hla Aung, 74, a prominent Rohingya lawyer, human rights defender, and longtime humanitarian worker arbitrarily detained in Sittwe, Rakhine State on July 15; and ten Rakhine activists who were convicted for peacefully protesting a Chinese-led natural gas project and sentenced on September 26 to three months in prison.