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Letter to President Obama on Political Prisoners

By 42 human rights organizations  •  December 19, 2013

The Honorable Mr. Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW
Washington, DC, 20500

Dear President Obama,

We are writing to express our concern that the Burmese government is continuing to arrest farmers, activists, human rights defenders, and ethnic minorities at alarmingly high rates. These arrests discredit the Burmese government’s claim that all political prisoners/prisoners of conscience (hereinafter “political prisoners”) will be released by the end of December 2013.[1]

Our organizations and your Administration have recognized the Burmese government’s progress toward releasing military-era political prisoners. We urge your Administration to likewise recognize that the Burmese government also continues to arrest, prosecute, sentence, and imprison, under both old and new laws, a growing number of people for exercising their rights to free speech, association, and assembly and speaking out against government abuses.

In this letter, we offer your Administration specific recommendations for ensuring that the Burmese government transparently and unconditionally releases all political prisoners, ends the practice of political arrests, and builds a legal atmosphere in which speaking out against human rights abuses, and being an ethnic minority, are not criminal acts.

Since President Thein Sein’s July 2013 announcement that all political prisoners would be released, many individuals have indeed been granted conditional amnesty, but hundreds more are currently being processed by Burma’s courts or detained without charges.[2] The government has barred Burma’s Committee for Scrutinizing Remaining Political Prisoners from recognizing many of these people as political prisoners, particularly Kachin, Rohingya, and other new detainees. Even those who are fortunate enough to be recognized as political prisoners and subsequently released are subject to intimidation and re-arrest.

For example, Naw Ohn Hla, arrested in August 2013 for organizing peaceful protests against government abuses at the Letpadaung copper mine, was granted amnesty in November 2013. She had been previously arrested in 2009 and granted amnesty in 2011.[3] On December 10, 2013, less than one month after her second high-profile release, she was re-arrested and charged for sedition for continuing her activism. She was also issued an outdated charge under the penal code for organizing prayer sessions at Shwedagon Pagoda in 2007.[4]

Notably, Naw Ohn Hla, and all other political prisoners, have been released only conditionally. Conditional releases mean that individuals can be re-arrested at any time if the government decides they have violated the terms of their parole. Individuals who are re-arrested and re-sentenced are subject to serve both their new sentence and the remainder of their previous sentence. Moreover, the architecture for new political arrests remains firmly embedded in Burma’s draconian legal framework, which is incompatible with Burma’s international law obligations.

Burma’s draconian legal system allows the government to specifically target individuals who speak out against the plethora of human rights abuses resulting from the government’s mega-development projects and other activities. 63 activists and human rights defenders were arrested from May to October 2013 alone.[5] Most of these individuals were charged under laws that restrict freedoms of expression, assembly, and speech, such as Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code. Burma’s civilian government – not the former regime – enacted Article 18 in December 2011. It has been repeatedly employed against communities expressing discontent over land confiscations, forced displacement, environmental and cultural destruction, inadequate compensation, and other abuses resulting from government and foreign-backed development projects.

Many of those arrested have been farmers. From June to August 2013, the government arrested at least 149 farmers – potentially hundreds more, though adequate statistics outside of Burma’s more central divisions have not yet been documented – who had been stripped of their livelihoods by development projects.[6] The government charged most of these disenfranchised farmers under Article 18 and also under criminal trespassing laws, as farmers continued to plow land after disputed confiscations. These trespassing charges have been highly politicized and unjust; the government selectively enforces trespassing laws against farmers protesting land confiscations.

Furthermore, the Burmese government has marginalized the existence of Kachin and Rohingya political prisoners. These ethnic political prisoners have suffered great abuse at the hands of the government – imprisoned, and in most cases, also tortured, starved, or even killed for their ethnicity alone.[7] The government’s political prisoners committee has failed to publicly recognize or advocate on behalf of these most vulnerable political prisoners.

Exact numbers of ethnic political prisoners are difficult to verify due to the government’s obstruction of access, but many Kachin are currently detained under the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act. 900-1,000+ Rohingya were unlawfully detained in Arakan State following the June 2012 violence; most remain in prison, and at least 68 died in custody before December 2012. The hundreds of detained Rohingya who have been charged and convicted have faced great discrimination, and have been denied due process rights, legal representation, definite sentences, and trial opportunities.[8] Many are likely innocent.

Around 200 Rohingya arrested following the June 2012 violence are still being held without charges. These include Dr. Tun Aung, chair of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council in Arakan State and a practicing medical doctor, who UN Special Rapporteur Quintana has repeatedly called on the government to release.[9] At least hundreds more Rohingya are being held across Arakan State under unjust charges, including, in Buthidaung prison alone, an estimated 535 Rohingya held for “unauthorized” marriages, and 108 held for spurious immigration/travel charges.

Due to ongoing detentions of activists, farmers, and ethnic minorities across Burma, it is necessary for your Administration to take immediate, pro-active steps to hold the Burmese government to its commitment to promptly release all political prisoners. The following recommendations outline the achievable steps the Burmese government must take in order to release all political prisoners, end the practice of political arrests, and build a legal atmosphere compatible with Burma’s international law obligations. It also recommends steps your Administration can take to support the Burmese government in achieving its commitment.


The U.S. Government should impress upon the Government of Burma:

  1. Release unconditionally all political prisoners. Ensure that all politically arrested prisoners, regardless of their ethnicity or whether they are formally associated with a human rights organization, fall under the definition of political prisoners/prisoners of conscience.
  2. Vacate all convictions for released political prisoners to ensure that they have no criminal record. This is necessary in order to restore legal dignity to former political prisoners and to remove discrimination barriers that may exist in efforts to find homes, employment, etc.
  3. Ensure that all prisoners, in particular Kachin and Rohingya detainees, receive proper due process rights, legal representation, and trial opportunities in accordance with international law.
  4. Immediately pardon all individuals who have been arrested, are facing trial, or have already been sentenced under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
  5. Immediately suspend the practice of arresting and trying farmers who protest the confiscation of their land or re-enter their confiscated land to plow or harvest it, and develop and implement a national policy on government acquisition of private land that comports with international standards on compensation and resettlement.
  6. Repeal or revise the following laws, as well as the other laws listed as incompatible with international law in the Myanmar Rule of Law Assessment,[10] to bring them in line with international standards. Immediately review individuals who have been arrested, are facing trial, or have already been sentenced under these laws.
    • Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law (2011) and other laws restricting the rights of peaceful assembly and protest
    • Unlawful Associations Act (1908)
    • Law Relating to the Formation of Organizations (1988)
    • Electronics Transactions Law (2004)
    • Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933)
    • Printers and Publishers Registration Act (1962)
    • Sections 143, 145, 152, 505, and other provisions of the Penal Code restricting freedoms of speech and expression
    • Section 401 of the Penal Code relating to conditional release
  7. Provide full financial support for rehabilitation and restitution and/or just compensation, consistent with international human rights standards, to all released political prisoners.
  8. Invite an international, independent observer to monitor the processing of all Rohingya prisoners in Arakan State.
  9. Establish a permanent independent political prisoner review mechanism involving international expertise, with the power to accept submissions and independently investigate cases where people may be in jail because of their political activities, beliefs, ethnicity, or religion; with judicial power to order the release of those assessed; and with power to make recommendations to the government and Parliament regarding the application, revision, and repeal of laws that are used to jail people for their political beliefs and/or activities, religion, or ethnicity.
  10. Ratify the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Optional Protocol thereto, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur. Seek technical assistance to eliminate torture and inhumane treatment in detention and prisons.
  11. Invite the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to establish a presence in Burma with a full mandate, as promised by President Thein Sein to President Obama in November 2012.

The U.S. Government should:

  1. Communicate to the Burmese government that the United States considers President Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political prisoners to include politically arrested ethnic minorities, protesting farmers, and other newly arrested political prisoners, and that this pledge will not be met until such prisoners are freed and the threats of new arrest and re-arrest are lifted.
  2. Offer support to the Burmese government to revise its laws relating to freedoms of assembly and expression to bring them in line with international standards.
  3. Withhold additional trade and investment benefits from Burma until Burmese laws and policies have been amended to provide adequate protections to protesting workers, farmers, activists, and vulnerable ethnic minorities.

Thank you for your consideration of these recommendations. We hope that your Administration will act promptly to support Burma in fully and transparently releasing all political prisoners and instituting much-needed legal reform. As always, we are grateful for our continued engagement with senior leadership of your Administration on these critical issues.

Actions Birmanie (Belgium)
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Association Suisse-Birmanie
Austrian Burma Center
Burma Action Ireland
Burma Campaign Australia
Burma Campaign UK
Burma Centre Delhi
Burma Partnership
Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Fortify Rights
Forum for Democracy in Burma
Free Burma Campaign (South Africa)
Freedom House
Human Rights Education Institute of Burma
Info Birmanie
Institute for Asian Democracy
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
International Labor Rights Forum
Investors Against Genocide
Journalists’ Forum Assam (India)
Kachin Legal Aid Network Group
Karen Environmental and Social Action Network
Karen Women Empowerment Group
Karen Women’s Organization
Karenni Civil Societies Network
Mae Tao Clinic
Norwegian Burma Committee
Odhikar (Bangladesh)
People’s Forum on Burma (Japan)
Physicians for Human Rights
Society for Threatened Peoples (Germany)
Swedish Burma Committee
Tavoyan Women’s Union
Than Lwin Citizen Empowerment Program
Triangle Women Support Group
United to End Genocide
US Campaign for Burma
Women Initiatives Network for Peace (WIN~Peace)
Women Peace Network Arakan


John Kerry, Secretary of State, Department of State
Susan Rice, National Security Adviser
Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations
Uzra Zeya, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Department of State
Daniel Russel, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of East Asia and the Pacific, Department of State


[1] See Saw Blacktown, Thein Sein’s pledge to release all political prisoners looks hollow as 74 year-old activist is jailed, Karen News, July 22, 2013, http://karennews.org/2013/07/thein-seins-pledge-to-release-all-political-prisoners-looks-hollow-as-74-year-old-activist-is-jailed.html/.

[2] See Hanna Hindstrom, Nearly 70 political prisoners freed in Burma, Democratic Voice of Burma, Nov. 15, 2013, https://www.dvb.no/news/nearly-70-political-prisoners-freed-in-burma-myanmar/34443 (quoting the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma reporting that “another 265 people are currently awaiting trial for political offenses”).

[3] See Hanna Hindstrom, Nearly 70 political prisoners freed in Burma, Democratic Voice of Burma, Nov. 15, 2013, https://www.dvb.no/news/nearly-70-political-prisoners-freed-in-burma-myanmar/34443.

[4] See Ko Htwe, Naw Ohn Hla charged on religious offences from 2007, Democratic Voice of Burma, Dec. 10, 2013,

[5] See New Arrests and Imprisonment of Activists and Human Rights Defenders in Burma, ALTSEAN, Oct. 25, 2013, http://www.altsean.org/Docs/PDF%20Format/Thematic%20Briefers/New%20arrests%20and%20 imprisonment%20of%20activists%20and%20human%20rights%20defenders%20in%20Burma.pdf.

[6] See Nyein Nyein, Political Prisoners in Burma Increase in September: AAPP, Irrawaddy, Oct. 18, 2013, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/political-prisoners-burma-increase-september-aapp.html.

[7] See UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, Situation of human rights in Myanmar, Mar. 6, 2013, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/A-HRC-22-58.pdf; see also UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, Situation of human rights in Myanmar, Sept. 23, 2013, at Section B, p. 4-5; Section G, at 12-13, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/A-68-397_en.pdf.

[8] See UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, Situation of human rights in Myanmar, Sept. 23, 2013, at Section B, 4-5; Section G, 12-13, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/A-68-397_en.pdf.

[9] See UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, Situation of human rights in Myanmar, Mar. 6, 2013, at IV, 13, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/MM/A-HRC-22-58.pdf.

[10] New Perimeter, Perseus Strategies, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, Myanmar Rule of Law Assessment, March 2013, at 29, http://www.jbi-humanrights.org/files/burma-rule-of-law-assessment.pdf.

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