Tue 13 May 2014
Filed under: Opinion
The jailing of Zaw Pe, a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma, has highlighted growing concerns about the progress, or lack of, in securing media freedoms in Burma. It also draws attention to the fact that the problem of political prisoners in our country hasn’t gone away.
The freeing of hundreds of political prisoners has been one of the acts for which President U Thein Sein has received the most praise. Political prisoners have been part of Myanmar’s political life for decades. Generations have grown up without having lived through a period when there were not people in jail for their political beliefs.
Occasionally there were times when it seemed that there could be change. General Ne Win announced a general amnesty in 1980, and even former Senior General Than Shwe released hundreds of political prisoners after he became leader. But these turned out to be false dawns, and soon the jails were once again filling up with political prisoners.
We are at a critical point now in Myanmar’s reform process and the issue of political prisoners. Within months it should become clear whether the president wants to go down in history as the man who finally tackled the problem of political prisoners, or whether this was just another false dawn.
Some of the indications for the future are not good. Rather than releasing political prisoners as swiftly as possible, President U Thein Sein has seemed to release them tactically – in a way that gains maximum positive publicity. Most releases are also only conditional, rather than pardons. Released political prisoners still have criminal records, and the president has never apologised and admitted they should never have been jailed in the first place. Nor have released prisoners been given compensation and support for health and other problems as a result of torture and their time in prison. Almost all repressive laws used to jail political prisoners remain in place.
Another concern is the lack of any significant pressure from the international community. The United States and European Union lifted sanctions before all political prisoners were freed, and issued no strong condemnation when President U Thein Sein broke his promise to free all political prisoners by the end of 2013.
Although Western governments still raise the issue in meetings, it is just one of a number of talking points. President U Thein Sein is well aware that relations will not be badly affected by keeping political prisoners in jail so long as they are not too high profile. Some think that he only released political prisoners to get sanctions lifted, and now that they are lifted he doesn’t need to release any more.
However, it is in his interests to address the issue of political prisoners once and for all. For a start, the political prisoners who are in jail are no real threat to him or his government. Keeping political prisoners in jail damages his reputation, within Myanmar and internationally, for little gain. It also damages the reputation of the country. Nor does President U Thein Sein need the repressive laws to maintain control. The 2008 constitution, which he was in charge of drafting, gives the military control and major influence at every level of government.
In 2012, President U Thein Sein agreed to a proposal to establish a political prisoner review committee. However, he was unwilling to go as far as human rights advocates and Western governments were asking – to make the committee independent and include international expertise. It is now time for him to be more courageous and agree to the establishment of a comprehensive review mechanism for political prisoners.
This time the review mechanism should be genuinely independent, and involve international legal experts so that it can be genuinely impartial and honest. It should be established by law in parliament, with powers to investigate cases where people may be in jail for political reasons. It should also have the legal power to order the pardon and release of prisoners it assesses to be in jail for political reasons and to award them compensation. A committee of this kind would also be best placed to identify repressive laws, or the misuse of laws for political purposes, and recommend to parliament that they be amended in line with international human rights standards or repealed altogether.
Progress in releasing political prisoners has stalled and there is no clear mechanism in sight for addressing this problem. We can’t carry on year after year waiting and hoping for the next announcement from the president about who he will release. It is time for a comprehensive mechanism to address this issue once and for all, so that our country no longer has to endure the shame of having political prisoners.
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is campaigns officer at Burma Campaign UK.