Release welcomed, but many still languish without charge in jail
On January 22, the government released 52 political prisoners as part of a political prisoner amnesty that, according to Presidential spokesperson Zaw Htay, was to mark the World Buddhist Peace Conference which was being hosted in north-western Myanmar. The 52 political prisoners released from five prisons were part of the 102 total prisoners released by the government.
While the amnesty was commendable, and included the release of Philip Blackwood, a New Zealand national sentenced to 30 months in prison for “insulting religion”, the fact remains that, according to a prisoner’s rights organisation, 408 others are currently awaiting trial for political actions. The organisation notes that of particular concern are the students and supporters who have been awaiting trial in detention since last March when they were arrested for their involvement in protests concerning the National Education Bill.
Somewhat ironically, as those 52 political prisoners were being released, the Government arrested and detained a prominent leader of the Saffron Revolution, U Gambira (aka) Nyi Nyi Lwin, and sentenced peace activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee to six months imprisonment for allegedly defaming the military on Facebook in what Amnesty International termed “a stark reminder of how prevalent repression still is in the country.”
Amnesty also noted that “It’s heartening that the men and women released today can go back to their lives and families, but the fact is none of them should have been charged in the first place. If President Thein Sein is serious about leaving a positive legacy, he must clear the country’s jails of all prisoners of conscience once and for all.”
There is little doubt that the amnesty was an important gesture and it was welcomed by the international community. A European Union statement noted that the Government’s decisions “. . . constitute noteworthy further steps in the country’s historic transition to democracy.’
However it also stated “. . . We encourage the Government to unconditionally release all remaining political prisoners, to take steps to prevent new unwarranted arrests.”
Most recently fears have been raised about the health of a number of students being held awaiting trial on the Education Bill charges. Families of the detained students have raised fears over their deteriorating health, accusing authorities of failing to provide adequate care during months of incarceration. In at least one case, the father of 28-year-old Honey Oo, said authorities had dithered for months as he begged them to allow hospital treatment for his daughter.
If the Thein Sein Government wants to leave an enduring legacy then he has to free those remaining political prisoners and student activists now and ensure no more arrests are made on questionable charges. If not, history will ensure his Government’s reputation will always be tarnished.