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Political Prisoners Continue to Suffer Despite the Claim that Change has Come to Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  October 31, 2011

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa recently undertook a mission to Burma in which he sought to determine whether the country has made sufficient changes to be granted the chair of ASEAN. Sadly, it appears that Mr. Natalegawa did not visit any of the ethnic states where conflict is ongoing and heinous human rights abuses are rampant. He also failed to meet with activists from the 88 generation who requested the opportunity speak with him. This may help to explain why Mr. Natalegawa’s comments at the conclusion of his visit focused on recent initiatives by the regime and declared that political reforms appear “irreversible.”

While change may be coming to Nyapyidaw and Rangoon, there is little evidence of change for those civilians living in conflict areas of Karen, Shan or Kachin State. Similarly, the 1700 political prisoners still behind bars have not experienced any positive change at all. Fifteen of these political prisoners being held in Burma’s notorious Insein prison, have attempted to bring some change to their situation, beginning a hunger strike to protest a ruling barring the majority of prisoners from the right to have their sentences reduced.

Rather than releasing all political prisoners, or even engaging in a genuine dialogue about their future, in an interview with Voice of America (Burmese), Burma’s Foreign Minister, U Wunna Mg Lwin, simply echoed the denials given by regime officials for decades.  He stated “As far as our government, we do not even have such vocabularies as ‘political prisoners’ or ‘prisoners of conscience’.  We do not arrest and imprison people for doing politics in our country”.

Activists both inside and outside of Burma, along with the United Nations and virtually the entire International Community disagree. The unlawful assembly charges against seven farmers arrested for staging a peaceful protest last week certainly demonstrate that the regime continues to “arrest and imprison people for doing politics.”

While there is no question that all political prisoners should be immediately released, there are several prisoners who are known to be in particularly poor health and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. One of these is Ashin Gambira, one of the leaders of the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) who remains imprisoned for his role in helping to organize the Saffron revolution in 2007. Recent reports, including from fellow prisoners released on 12 October, indicate that he is in poor health and in desperate need of medical assistance.  The ABMA has called for his immediate release and access to medical treatment.

Due to the failure of the regime to address the dual issues of political prisoner and continuing conflict in ethnic areas, activists have argued that Burma is not yet ready to be granted the chairmanship of ASEAN. Granting the regime the chairmanship before it meets clear benchmarks will likely inhibit, rather than promote, real change in Burma. Thus, ASEAN should delay any decision on granting Burma the organization’s chairmanship until the regime truly makes change “irreversible” by:

  • unconditionally releasing all political prisoners;
  • declaring a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic armed groups and ceasing attacks on ethnic communities; and
  • entering into inclusive political dialogue with ethnic nationality representatives, including armed groups, and the pro-democracy movement, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD.
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