RANGOON — Despite President Thein Sein’s pledge to free all political prisoners in Burma by the end of 2013, at least 55 prisoners of conscience remain behind bars, advocacy groups have told The Irrawaddy.
The Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) and the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said that 33 inmates are still on a list of the Political Prisoners Assessment Committee. This government-appointed committee, comprising cabinet members and human rights activists, has been tasked with identifying prisoners eligible for a presidential pardon.
“We are still working for the release of the people on this list,” said AAPP member Talky.
He said ethnic armed groups are seeking the release of another 22 political prisoners who had belonged to their groups, adding that the release of these prisoners would be handled through negotiations between ethnic groups, the Myanmar Peace Center and the Presidents’ Office.
Since coming to office in 2011, President Thein Sein’s reformist government has released several thousand political prisoners, who were detained by the previous military government.
Last year, during six rounds of presidential amnesties, 330 political prisoners were released, while in early January this year four political prisoners were set free along with about 13,000 ordinary prisoners, who saw their sentences cut short, according to Ye Aung, a FPPS representative and member of the Political Prisoners Assessment Committee.
“All political prisoners who were jailed under political charges were abolished under a Dec. 31 presidential amnesty order,” said Talky, adding that many of the released had been charged with the Peaceful Assembly Law’s Article 18, the Penal Code’s 505 (b) and Emergency Provisions Act 5(j)—provisions that openly suppress political activity.
Talky said the remaining prisoners of conscience had not been released because they were also convicted of other criminal charges, such as murder and bombings, in relation to their political activities. “Those who are not still released are facing other remaining charges,” he said. “The situation of the remaining political prisoners is complicated.”
Talky said, however, that their release was critical to Burma’s political reforms, adding, “The fact that political prisoners remain in Myanmar’s prisons is interfering with the national reconciliation process.”
Ye Aung, of the FPP, said there were some members of civil society organizations, as well five former members of the Burma Army on the list of 33 political prisoners, adding that the soldiers had been jailed for making political statements while serving in the military.
Although Thein Sein’s government has received much praise for the release of thousands of political prisoners and the political reforms it introduced, civil society and human rights organizations remain concerned about further arrest of political activist.
Burma’s civil society has begun a campaign calling for the abolition of Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, which bans protests without government permission.
The arrest of activists under this charge increased last year and have continued in 2014, according to Aung Myo Kyaw, a staff member at AAPP. “During the last month, 10 people were charged under Article 18,” he said.