Burmese human rights groups said that at least 59 political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma, while 85 defendants are currently facing trial for political reasons.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for former Political Prisoners (AAPP) and Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) said in a statement Tuesday that President Thein Sein has not fulfilled his promise to release all political prisoners before the end of 2013, while his government continued to arrest new political prisoners.
The rights groups said the government’s public pledges “convinced much of the outside world that all political activists had been freed from Burma’s jails.
“These statements not only served to undermine the plight of those political activists still in jail at the beginning of 2014, but also shifted focus away from the ongoing restrictions and harassments of political activists.”
The groups added that, “The willingness of the international community to believe [government promises] is as concerning as the ongoing arrests themselves.”
“The dangers to journalists, farmers, demonstrators, and political activists are as real as ever—a fact reflected in the number of arrests made since the start of the year.”
AAPP secretary Bo Kyi said 29 political prisoners were sentenced this year, while another 30 prisoners of conscience have been held longer.
“In 2014, there have been 85 people charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law, Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code, Section 447, and a number of other laws,” he said.
Burmese authorities have increasingly used the Peaceful Assembly Law’s Article 18, which sets a six-month prison sentence for holding an unauthorized protest, and the Penal Code’s Article 505 (b), which sets a two-year sentence for “disturbing public order,” to suppress public dissent.
Burma has seen an increase in public protests after political reforms began in 2011 and many communities, such as farmers who suffered from land grabs, began to air their long-suppressed grievances.
Since taking office in 2011, Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has released thousands of political prisoners and last year about 200 prisoners were released in several rounds of presidential amnesties.
Last year, Thein Sein ordered the formation of a committee to establish the exact number of remaining political prisoners in order to arrange for their release. The committee is led by President’s Office Minister Soe Thein and comprises several human rights groups, including AAPP, and government officials of relevant ministries.
The committee has been unable to agree on the definition and release of the last remaining political prisoners, however, and Bo Kyi said the last meeting had been held on March 1, 2014. “The stakeholders have called for the further meeting to solve the matter,” Bo Kyi said.
“We urge [the government to] release all remaining political prisoners, ensure that former political prisoners are freed from current repression and that [the government] defines the meaning of the term political prisoner,” he said.
In their statement on Tuesday, AAPP and FPPS said they were also increasingly concerned over the growing number of journalists that have been detained in recent months, which included the sentencing of Democratic Voice of Burma journalist Zaw Pe to one year in prison and the arrest of five journalists of Unity Journal.
“This attitude of oppressing journalists and restricting press freedom is evidently still prevalent in Burma, with the press hamstrung in their attempts to question the actions of government and state officials,” the groups said.