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Despite End-of-Year Amnesty, Political Prisoner Issue Casts Shadow Over 2014

By Burma Partnership  •  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.

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