Steps in the right direction
It was heartening to see the efforts of several media and CSO groups last week to help support former political prisoners. A number of media groups and CSOs stepped up to the plate, with support from USAID and FHI360, to offer six month fellowships to a total of 50 out of 152 former political prisoners who applied to give them hands on experience and work exposure to help in their rehabilitation. Mizzima Media Group accepted five for the fellowship.
What is crucial to understand about people who have been imprisoned for their political beliefs or actions is that when they are freed typically their struggle continues. Often it is hard to find a job or return to the life they left before they were imprisoned. In a number of cases there are the unseen mental scars of poor treatment while incarcerated.
This proactive programme to reach out to former political prisoners should be lauded and supported. Society as a whole should make efforts to welcome former prisoners back into the fold and support them in their transition back into normal life.
But we should not forget those political prisoners who are still incarcerated or awaiting trial.
According to the NGO Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there are still dozens currently serving prison sentences and dozens awaiting trial either in prison or on bail for pursuing “political activities” in one form or another. The current Myanmar government faces the legacy of a host of laws – some going back to colonial times – that through enforcement have led to people getting locked up for activities that ought to be a right in a free society. These include the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, the Unlawful Associations Act, Section 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, and others.
What is disturbing is that the National League for Democracy-led government under the leadership of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has been slow to deal with these judicial matters – despite several members of the NLD party having previously imprisoned themselves for “political crimes”.
If there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon it may lay in what appears to be an increased willingness by the government to consider going through the process of amending the controversial laws. Suu Kyi recently said in a news conference when pressed that the legislature is considering amendments to Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. But if changes are in the offing, they only appear to tinker with the law, not axe it, possibly allowing judges to release people on bail. Some politicians are said to oppose changes to the law, which they defend as a tool for curbing hate speech and false news as internet access expands in Myanmar.
Every effort needs to be made by Myanmar society to remind the government that what the majority voted for at the last election was democracy and change, not a continuation of a stifling atmosphere that smothers people’s freedom and leaves people in fear.