The arrest of political activists under catch-all sections of the penal code is thwarting efforts to create a law differentiating political prisoners from criminal offenders.

According to a committee tasked with seeking the release of remaining political prisoners, many activists continue to be arrested for offences such as trespassing and causing public offence but are handed stiff sentences aimed at intimidating those involved in political activities.

“The arresting of political activists is different compared to the previous regime. Sometimes, the authorities arrest activists on political charges, but mostly activists are arrested under other clauses in the penal code. This is making it difficult to define the meaning of political prisoners,” said Ye Aung a member of the Remaining Political Prisoners Scrutinising Committee (RPPSC).

The committee is composed of government officials, rights group advocates and former political prisoners, and is tasked with proposing a list of political prisoners to the president’s office.

However, many are in disagreement over who should constitute a political prisoner and efforts to devise a law to protect prisoners of conscience have been hampered by infighting.

Despite a general amnesty announced by President Thein Sein and the release of 354 prisoners in 2013, as many as 46 dissidents remain behind bars, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Around 70 others are also awaiting trial and another 148 have sentenced, some in absentia, under catch-all laws.

“Lack of cooperation between the government and the parliament leads to the delay in enforcing the law on definition of political prisoners,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and head of AAPP.
“We will seek advice from international legal experts in an effort to define the meaning of political prisoners,” he added.

Despite the good will gesture and international praise the the president received after declaring a general amnesty, there has been no effort to rehabilitate former prisoners or provide medical or financial support.
Many former prisoners are forced to live in poverty after their release and still suffer from ailments due to poor treatment and even years of torture in Myanmar’s jails.