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Freeing Myanmar's political prisoners

President promised to release all political prisoners by end of 2013, but some are calling for more sweeping change.

Last updated: 07 Jan 2014 12:44
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Yangon, Myanmar - Khin Lai Yee looks despondently at a photograph of her father. Framed with a black bow and white flower, his is just one of scores of black-and-white portraits of political prisoners in Myanmar who died while in custody honoured at a memorial in Yangon.

"There is no justice," the 46-year-old woman said. "They forced me to sign a document agreeing he died of a heart attack, but I know it isn't true. I want to sue the government for what they did to us."

But there is no recourse for the suffering of this general's daughter and the families of other political prisoners who perished in Myanmar's notoriously brutal labour camps.

Even for released political prisoners, most presidential amnesties granted are "conditional", meaning they can find themselves back behind bars at any time. Furthermore, their convictions bar them from most forms of employment and schooling, leaving them in a perpetual limbo some describe as akin to being in a prison without walls.

Still behind bars

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), as many as 46 persecuted people remain behind bars in Myanmar's prison system, with around 70 others awaiting trial and another 148 sentenced, some in absentia, during 2013 under catch-all laws for locking up dissidents.

Reformist president Thein Sein granted amnesty to five political prisoners on Tuesday as the quasi-civillian government strove to uphold his personal commitment to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013. Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut said in a Facebook post on December 31, "I would like to say that the president has fulfilled his promise given to the people, because there will be no political prisoners at all at the end of 2013". He attached a report of the Remaining Political Prisoners Scrutinising Committee (RPPSC), which has overseen the release of 354 prisoners in 2013.

Call for constitutional change in Myanmar

But developing the list is at times hampered by competing views among the committee's members about who should be classified as a political prisoner. In a release issued on January 3, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised the government for not releasing human rights activists Dr Tun Aung and U Kyaw Hla Aung, detained since June 2012 and July 2013 respectively, as well as three workers at international non-governmental organisations jailed since 2012. "We ask the authorities to release those prisoners and to ensure that the prisoner review committee continue(s) its work to resolve all pending cases," the statement reads.

The RPPSC, comprised of government officials, rights group advocates and former political prisoners, proposes lists of political prisoners to the president's office for Thein Sein's personal approval and amnesty order.

Recently, opposition parliamentarian Thein Nyunt pushed forward a motion to consider classifying 21 former military intelligence officers incarcerated during a 2004 power struggle within the military as political prisoners. But the bid has been blocked by both rights groups and government members on the committee, leaving the former military officers with no avenue for appeal.

"We appreciate his [the president's] order; however, we are still struggling to find who are political prisoners and with poor living conditions we need for there to be rehabilitation programmes in place to help them," said Aung Myint, a member of the Former Political Prisoners group.

Aung Myint, who spent seven years in prison in Mon State from 1998 to 2004, said that during his time in prison he was locked in a small cell and allowed to come out just four times a day in 15-minute increments. "I lived alone in the cell, so they only opened the door for one hour a day total," he said, adding that he was forced to watch as other inmates suffered from malnutrition. "The food was bean soup and rice, or fish soup with a lot of bones. We were poorly clothed and because there was no good way to clean ourselves, we smelt a lot."

Amnesty, not change

"There have been some political changes but it is not really fundamental change yet," said Moethee Zun, a student activist during Myanmar's violent 1988 uprising, who fled the country and spent years living at a Thai refugee camp. "We see only small, superficial changes. You know we can make a celebration here, you can go around the country, very basic changes - [but] we want to see more political change."

Between 3,000 and 4,000 activists were imprisoned in 1988 and in the following years for their role in protests that brought Yangon, then the capital, to a standstill. Many have since been released, most since 2011 under decrees issued by President Thein Sein.

Others died in custody and some continue to suffer in prison, Moethee Zun said. "Because of this, people still feel fear," he said, adding that even full amnesty could not erase the trauma of seeing loved ones tortured, harassed and locked up.

Kyaw Hoe, a senior litigator and member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, said that despite the 2013 amnesties, many opposition activists continue to be imprisoned for their political activities. "These political cases where people are sued by the government, the government has everything - information, resources - human and money," Kyaw Hoe said.

While he has noticed a decline in politically motivated cases since 2010, Kyaw Hoe estimates he provided 1,540 hours in pro bono legal assistance to NLD members in 2013 alone. "These are cases where NLD members have been assaulted, sued on trumped up charges or accused of leading illegal political protests," he said. Hearings can drag on for up to a year, with the accused often behind bars for the duration of the trial, unable to make bail.

Upon conviction, inmates can be moved regularly through Myanmar's geographically expansive prison system. Released prisoners speak of being moved up to 15 hours' travel away from their family and rotated in and out of hard labour detention centres.

"I cannot focus on the future," said one 28-year-old political prisoner who was recently released, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "I have been in prison for five years and I don't know anything anymore. I have to stay with my family," he said.

"I used to want to work with computers," he said of his teenage ambition. "But then I joined the army, and…" he shakes his head - an echo of Khin Lai Yee gazing upon her father's photocopied face.

Additional reporting by Bridget Di Certo.

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Al Jazeera
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