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21 December – 12 January: Despite End-of-Year Amnesty, Political Prisoner Issue Casts Shadow Over 2014

January 13, 2014

Political Prisoner Release from Insein July 2013 by JPaing IrrawaddyTo casual Burma observers, President Thein Sein may appear to have fulfilled his promise to British Prime Minister David Cameron on 15 July 2013 that all political prisoners in Burma would be released by the end of 2013. After all, political prisoners were freed throughout 2013, culminating in two “final” releases on 11 December (41 released) and 31 December (16 released). The motive is not hard to discern: such high profile releases play into the current “good news” narrative on Burma. The international community, hungrily eyeing up Burma’s huge potential as an untapped frontier market of boundless investment opportunities, cheap labor and vast natural resources, tends to lap up such reports without examining the narrative more carefully.

Inevitably the narrative is not so simple. The most prominent criticism of the Burma government’s policy towards political prisoners in 2013 was that it was releasing some, while all the time arresting others, particularly land and community activists. This “revolving door” policy ensured that Burma’s jails were in no danger of being put out of business.

However, this time, President Thein Sein has deftly wrong-footed his critics: Presidential Pardon Order Number 51/2013, issued on 30 December 2013, pardoned those imprisoned, charged or under investigation for a variety of controversial offenses that have served as the principal weapons against a newer wave of activists, many of whom are land and community activists. The offenses include Sections 122, 124(a) and 505(b) of the Penal Code, and all those under the Unlawful Associations Act, the Emergency Provisions Act, and the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law. Section 18 of the latter and Section 505(b) of the Penal Code have been used to sentence a large number of political prisoners, and a vociferous civil society movement has developed against Section 18 in particular.

We therefore applaud the Burma government’s ability to look beyond the high profile political activists and to appreciate that those charged under these notorious provisions deserve to be released. Yet there is no guarantee that the “revolving door” policy will not be resurrected in 2014, when the eyes of the world are no longer on the political prisoner issue. Existing laws, especially the ones mentioned above, will remain an ongoing threat to all activists as long as they remain on the statute books. They must be amended by Parliament as soon as possible, so that they are in line with international human rights standards on the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, and so that activists are able to pursue their legitimate work without fear of arrest, imprisonment or other judicial harassment.

Furthermore, all those released must be released unconditionally, which has not always been the case. In other words, they must be acquitted of all charges against them. If not, activists are in a state of limbo, meaning that they are constantly at risk – and in fear – of being re-arrested and sent straight back to jail. Not only is this an abuse of their rights to a fair trial, liberty and to be free from arbitrary arrest or imprisonment, but it also undermines their valuable and legitimate human rights work – which in turn creates doubt over the genuine political will of the Burma government. In addition, their lives can be blighted by the negative implications of their status, for example they can find it difficult to secure jobs.

Finally, and most importantly, it is not true that all political prisoners have now been released, despite government claims to the contrary. In fact, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 33 political prisoners are still languishing in jail in January 2014 for conducting political activities – albeit on criminal charges rather than the political charges to which the 30 December pardon is restricted – with around 136 awaiting trial on various charges. Such prisoners include Kachin internally displaced people and land rights activists, Rohingya human rights defenders and Burmese INGO workers.

Using fabricated charges under standard criminal legislation is another tactic to silence critics of the Burma government and its allies – one that relies on a compliant and corrupt judiciary – but one that has not been highlighted by the recent flurry of prisoner releases and the current focus on repressive legislation. As Parliament finds its feet, matures, and begins to enact legislation that is more consistent with international human rights standards, the use of the judiciary – rather than the legislature – as a tool of repression might become more prevalent.

We urge the Burma government to immediately and unconditionally acquit and release all existing political prisoners, regardless of the stated offense. Furthermore, we call upon Parliament to repeal all repressive legislation that restricts people’s fundamental human rights. We also support the creation of an independent, competent and non-compliant judiciary to ensure that laws are properly applied in court. Finally, we encourage the international community to take advantage of existing points of leverage and pressure the Burma government to put the political prisoner issue to bed for good and garner genuine international credibility and legitimacy for Burma while it holds the Chair of ASEAN and before it enters the home straight to the 2015 general elections.

News Highlights

USDP backs a constitutional amendment allowing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to be President on the condition that her sons take up Burma citizenship while NLD confirms that it will contest the 2015 general elections even if such constitutional amendment is not made

Inside Burma

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi takes discussions about the 2008 Constitution to Chin State and in Tedim Township declares the Constitution to be undemocratic, however the Chin State government allegedly prevents many supporters from attending her speech in Falam Township, which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi condemns

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut defends Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law while Win Mra, Chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, expresses concern over the increasing number of arrests under Article 18, yet emphasizes the need to maintain the requirement for prior government permission for demonstrations

MPs state that the next parliamentary session will focus upon the state budget, voting on constitutional amendments and finalising several draft bills

Burma Army continues its attacks in majority-Christian Kachin State over the Christmas period

A 10-member Karen National Union delegation meets with President Thein Sein and Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw

Burma Army takes lead in investigating alleged rape of 13-year-old girl by one its soldiers in Kawzar Sub-Township, Mon State and is alleged to use Rohingya women as sex slaves in Arakan State

UNHCR is compiling a list of Rohingyas in Arakan State to determine how many should be eligible for Burma citizenship, to the objection and disapproval of local officials, while the Archbishop of Rangoon calls for citizenship for Rohingyas in his New Year message

Burma government explains the upcoming national census to Burma’s ethnic rebel groups

Two Kachin internally displaced people are tortured and have their jail sentences increased under the Unlawful Associations Act

Leading activists and families of former political prisoners demand an apology from the previous military regime for deaths in custody in order to facilitate the national reconciliation process

Naw Ohn Hla calls for charges against her in 2007 “religious disturbance” case to be dropped

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi criticizes President Thein Sein for not resolving the future of the Myitsone Dam


Indonesia’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights calls for regional human rights court to be established within ten years

International pressure mounts on the governments of Burma and Thailand to address the detention and human trafficking of Rohingya refugees as 13 Rohingya women and children disappear from a family shelter north of Phuket, Thailand

A feasibility study and environmental impact assessment for Tavoy infrastructure projects will take place while Dawei SEZ Development Co. now has a 75-year concession to develop the Tavoy Special Economic Zone


EU Ambassador says that progress is being made on the Burma government allowing a UN OHCHR office to open inside the country

US imposes sanctions on three companies from Burma and a military staff officer on accusations of involvement in banned armed dealings with North Korea

British training for Burma Army to begin after endorsement from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

Restoration Council of the Shan State (RCSS) says the tripartite anti-drugs agreement between the Burma government, RCSS and the UN Office for Drugs and Crime is more of an agreement on paper than in practice

Japan pledges US$93 million over the next five years to develop infrastructure in conflict-affected ethnic areas


Health Cooperation at Border Critical
By Cynthia Maung
The Bangkok Post

Human Trafficking: Muslim Women Vulnerable in Burma
By Engy Abdelkader
The Huffington Post

Latest from the Blog

A Year of Nascent Reforms Taking Root, Challenges for Future Growth
By Burma Partnership


TAKE ACTION! Write a letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron urging the government to push for the release of Kyaw Hla Aung and all remaining political prisoners

TAKE ACTION! Write a letter to urge that all those responsible for the torture of Kyaw Nyunt and his companion be investigated and prosecuted

At least 1,000 people attend a protest organized by the 88 Generation Students group in downtown Rangoon against laws that restrict freedom of assembly, especially Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law

Hundreds of journalists in Rangoon protest the sentencing of Eleven Media reporter Khine Khine Aye Cho to three months in prison for defamation, trespass and use of abusive language

Workers plan to file a lawsuit after a factory owner in Mandalay reneges on a dispute agreement

Around 70 people protest outside City Hall in Rangoon calling for amendments to the 2008 Constitution

Statements and Press Releases

Amnesty Does Not Free All Political Detainees
By Asian Human Rights Commission

Khin Mi Mi Khaing, Myint Myint Aye and Thant Zin Htet Released After Hunger Strike
By Burma Campaign UK

Brang Yung and Lahpai Gam Prison Sentences Increased
By Burma Campaign UK

Joint Mission Statement Regarding the Dire Humanitarian Situation Faced by IDPs in Taung Paw Camp in Myebon Township, Arakan State
By Embassy of Switzerland, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, Embassy of the United States of America and Delegation of the European Union

President Thein Sein Fails to Keep His Promise to Release All Political Prisoners by Year-End
By International Federation for Human Rights and Altsean-Burma

Kachin Group Slams China’s New CSR Report on Irrawaddy Dams
By Kachin Development Networking Group

Kachin National Organization Demand Unconditional Release of All Kachin Political Prisoners
By Kachin National Organization

USCB Welcomes Introduction of The Burma Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2013
By US Campaign for Burma

This post is in: Weekly Highlights