New mech­a­nism needed to free Myan­mar’s po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Mark Far­maner

His­tory was made this Thingyan New Year, but it largely went un­no­ticed. For the first time in decades a prisoner amnesty was an­nounced in Myan­mar, but none of those re­leased were po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.Pre­vi­ously, po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers have al­ways been in­cluded in mass prisoner re­leases. Al­most 200 po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were left in jail, some of them con­victed, some not even con­victed, still await­ing trial.

A few days later, on the third an­niver­sary of the death of NLD founder U Win Tin, thou­sands of peo­ple in Myan­mar and around the world wore blue shirts as part of a day of sol­i­dar­ity call­ing for the re­lease of all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. U Win Tin was one of Myan­mar’s long­est serv­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, de­scrib­ing his time in jail from 1989 un­til 2008 as “liv­ing in hell”. He fa­mously pledged to wear a blue shirt, the same colour shirt he had to wear in prison, un­til all po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in the coun­try were re­lease.

Twenty-four hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions from around the world, in­clud­ing the As­sis­tance As­so­ci­a­tion for Po­lit­i­cal Pris­on­ers Burma, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, and Burma Cam­paign UK, is­sued a joint state­ment call­ing for the im­me­di­ate re­lease of all in­di­vid­u­als de­tained or im­pris­oned on fab­ri­cated, po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated charges, and for the es­tab­lish­ment of an in­de­pen­dent and ef­fec­tive prisoner re­view mech­a­nism to bring about an end to ar­bi­trary ar­rests and de­ten­tions in Myan­mar.

In 2013, then Pres­i­dent Thein Seinan­nounced the es­tab­lish­ment of the Com­mit­tee for Scru­ti­niz­ing the Re­main­ing Pris­on­ers of Con­science “to scru­ti­nize the re­main­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers serv­ing their terms in prisons through­out the coun­try so as to grant them lib­erty”. How­ever, this com­mit­tee never func­tioned in­de­pen­dently, and the re­lease of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers was still at the whim of the gov­ern­ment. To­day there is no func­tion­ing re­view com­mit­tee, and the de­ci­sion on whether or not to re­lease a po­lit­i­cal prisoner is at the whim of State Coun­sel­lor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

As the num­ber of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers grad­u­ally in­creases, re­pres­sive laws which ar­bi­trar­ily re­strict the rights to free­dom of ex­pres­sion, as­so­ci­a­tion and peace­ful as­sem­bly re­main in place. Both sides of the gov­ern­ment, civil­ians and mil­i­tary, con­tinue to use re­pres­sive laws to in­tim­i­date, ar­rest and jail hu­man rights de­fend­ers, other peace­ful ac­tivists, and mem­bers of eth­nic mi­nori­ties.

Rather than hav­ing a ‘bon­fire of the bills’, mov­ing speed­ily to re­peal re­pres­sive laws in one par­lia­men­tary bill, the gov­ern­ment has cho­sen an ag­o­niz­ingly slow in­di­vid­ual re­view process. This process is over­seen by Shwe Mann, a for­mer gen­eral. The re­view process does not ap­pear to be based on in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law or stan­dards. Even laws which have been re­vised, such as the as­sem­bly law, fall short of ba­sic hu­man rights stan­dards.

The need for a new and in­de­pen­dent mech­a­nism is ur­gent. To de­tain peo­ple of their lib­erty for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons is un­ac­cept­able. It is in­com­pat­i­ble with the pub­lic state­ments in sup­port of hu­man rights made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Na­tional League for Democ­racy. Yet that is what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her gov­ern­ment are do­ing. They have the power to re­lease po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, but have de­cided to keep them in jail. The ar­gu­ment that they are in jail for crim­i­nal, not po­lit­i­cal rea­sons is the same ar­gu­ment used by for­mer dic­ta­tor Than Shwe. It holds no cred­i­bil­ity. Even Lah­pai Gam, whom the UN has stated is be­ing held ar­bi­trar­ily in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law, has been kept in jail. How is this com­pat­i­ble with pledges to pri­ori­tise the rule of law?

A sys­tem of proper sup­port for for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies needs to be es­tab­lished.

The new com­mit­tee must re­view the cases of all those who may have been charged or de­prived of their lib­erty sim­ply for the peace­ful ex­er­cise of their hu­man rights or as a re­sult of un­fair, po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated tri­als. All those charged or de­tained solely for the peace­ful ex­er­cise of their rights should be im­me­di­ately and un­con­di­tion­ally re­leased and all charges against them dropped.

The com­mit­tee must also re­view all laws used to ar­rest, pros­e­cute and pun­ish po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and pris­on­ers of con­science, and rec­om­mend to Par­lia­ment the re­peal or amend­ment of all such laws to bring them into line with in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights law and stan­dards. It also needs to make rec­om­men­da­tions to au­thor­i­ties to end the mis­use of laws to tar­get peo­ple for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

A sys­tem of proper sup­port for for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies needs to be es­tab­lished. Lives have been de­stroyed - the state has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to those af­fected.

If the NLD-led gov­ern­ment agrees to the es­tab­lish­ment of such a com­mit­tee, it will go a long way to start to ad­dress the po­lit­i­cal prisoner cri­sis faced by Myan­mar. Keep­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in jail puts the NLD gov­ern­ment in the same league as gov­ern­ments in coun­tries like Iran, China, Saudi Ara­bia and Azer­bai­jan.

The con­tin­ued de­ten­tion of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers is more than a hu­man rights prob­lem, or a po­lit­i­cal and le­gal prob­lem for the gov­ern­ment of Myan­mar. Those de­tained, and their fam­i­lies, pay a huge per­sonal price. There is no place for po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in a coun­try which wants to be a gen­uine democ­racy one day.

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