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Release of Political Prisoners: One Step of Many Needed for Democracy in Burma

By Burma Partnership  •  January 16, 2012

In its most substantive gesture to date, Thein Sein’s government released 651 prisoners on Friday 16 January. Among those released are ethnic leaders, leaders of the 88 Generation Student movement, and other prominent political prisoners. We applaud their release and recognize the importance of this step but further reforms are necessary in order for freedom and democracy to truly come to Burma.

The most crucial step that must be taken is the amendment or repeal of existing repressive laws, such as the Electronics Transactions Law, which subjects individuals to up to fifteen years in prison for the dissemination or receipt of information considered a threat to national tranquility, and the Unlawful Associations Act. Such repressive laws have long been used to imprison political opponents. As long as these laws remain on the books, the people of Burma will continue to risk arrest solely for expressing their opinion. This is something many of the recently released political prisoners know well, having been arrested, sentenced, released in an amnesty, and then subsequently rearrested multiple times. The concern that these political prisoners could be returned to prison should they seek to speak out against the government is of particular concern given that their release was based upon Article 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows for prisoners’ sentences to be suspended or remitted, but not cancelled as in previous amnesties. This means that should they be rearrested they could be forced to serve the remainder of their original sentence.

While Burma’s recently established National Human Rights Commission hailed the release of political prisoners, it said nothing about the brutal conditions these prisoners were subjected to while in jail, nor did it mention the fact that up to 1,000 political prisoners remain imprisoned. As Nilar Thein, an 88 Generation activist, said upon her release, “But we have to work harder for our remaining colleagues who are still in prison. If all of them are released, that will be a beautiful image for all of us.”

In addition to the remaining political prisoners, the ongoing armed conflict in ethnic areas currently represents one of largest obstacles to national reconciliation. Immediately upon his release, Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation Student movement, stated that “I am very concerned about achieving peace in ethnic areas because when I hear the news about the armed conflicts, particularly in Kachin State, it makes me very uncomfortable … That’s why we need peace across the country immediately. Then we can work toward building national reconciliation.”

The recent agreement between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the regime represents a positive step towards peace. However, it is important to recognize that this is not yet a ceasefire but rather “an initial agreement … towards a ceasefire agreement.” Subsequent discussions are necessary about how various points in the agreement would be operationalized before the parties can enter into a final ceasefire agreement. Additionally, a ceasefire, while a key step in the process of national reconciliation, will address only the issue of armed conflict and will not, on its own, address the underlying issue of ethnic equality or give a voice in the government to the Karen people. As Karen Communities Worldwide explained in a press release last week, “All Karen want peace, but not peace at the price of surrender that leaves us defenceless against human rights abuses and oppression. There must be a political solution which guarantees ethnic rights and protects ethnic culture. There must be a political solution where the people of Burma can live peacefully side by side, different but equal.”

Many in the international community have responded to recent developments in Burma by calling for the lifting of sanctions on the regime. However, as momentous as these developments are, it is clear that much more needs to be done before the sanctions can be removed. When discussing the announcement that the United States would begin the process of exchanging ambassadors with Burma, a US government spokesperson explained that importance would be placed on “Burma taking steps to unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners, end violence and human rights abuses in ethnic areas, and address international concerns about Burma’s military ties to North Korea.”

It is crucial that, before sanctions are lifted, Thein Sein’s government takes these steps as well as changing the laws that restrict freedom of expression, assembly and opinion. As blogger Nay Phone Latt stated after his release, “We express ourselves freely by writing and posting it on our blog or facebook. So, I will keep writing even if it means I get arrested again. Then we will know whether or not we have real freedom.”

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