RANGOON — A workshop was convened this week in Rangoon to decide what constitutes a political prisoner, taking on a divisive issue that continues to weigh down on Burma’s reform narrative.
The government and political activists have been at odds over the definition of the term, a disagreement that has implications for a pledge made by President Thein Sein last year that all prisoners of conscience in Burma would be released by the end of 2013.
More than 100 representatives from NGOs and political parties, as well as activists, lawmakers and lawyers, gathered for the two-day workshop on Aug. 17-18 at the Dhamma Peya monastery in Rangoon’s Thingangyun Township. Jointly organized by the Rangoon-based Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) and Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the discussion also included former political prisoners who were granted amnesty under Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government.
“The definition of a political prisoner is necessary to articulate because the government is denying that there are any political prisoners who remain behind bars,” Tun Kyi of the FPPS told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
He said that Aung Thein, a President’s Office deputy minister who also serves as secretary of the government-backed Political Prisoners Scrutinizing Committee, has maintained that all political prisoners were released by the end of 2013, in fulfilment of Thein Sein’s promise.
“So we decided to hold the workshop and invited international organizations like ICTJ [International Center for Transitional Justice] and ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], activists, lawyers and lawmakers to define the definition of political prisoners and to enforce the law on that,” he said.
Thein Sein has granted amnesties to more than 1,000 political prisoners since he took office in 2011, as part of a democratic reform program that has won the president international praise.
But Tun Kyi said authorities have continued to make politically motivated arrests and prosecutions, repeatedly using alleged criminal charges that have allowed them to stifle dissent or limit freedom of expression in other ways, while purporting to uphold the rule of law and follow due process.
The definition states that anyone arrested, charged or sentenced for directly or indirectly supporting movements for freedom, justice, equality, or human rights, or for participating in demonstrations or other forms of dissent against the government, would be considered a political prisoner.
“According to the definition that came from the workshop, a political prisoner is anyone who is arrested on political charges or other penal code-based violations, if they were protesting against the Constitution or the government’s conduct, including the president and all government officials,” he said.
Activists have decried the intimidation, arrest and prosecution of dozens of people this year, ranging from activists and farmers to journalists and politicians. Often they are charged under laws still on the books but considered undemocratic, such as the Peaceful Assembly Law, which until recently required pre-approval from local authorities to stage a protest.
Aung Myo Kyaw, a spokesman for the AAPP, said workshop participants would submit the finalized definition of political prisoners to Parliament.
“The government no longer recognizes political prisoners [as still existing]. So now we have a definition, which was agreed upon by the various organizations and will be sent to Parliament to get recognition from the government,” he said.
He said that previously, the reformist government mainly considered releasing political prisoners based on the charges for which they were incarcerated, which were generally made under Burma’s repressive former military regime. The releases were not informed by a specific definition of what constituted a political prisoner, he added.
“A definition would help to release political prisoners remaining behind bars and to avoid including those who are not political prisoners in amnesties, and to ensure rights and assistance to political prisoners during and after their imprisonment,” Aung Myo Kyaw said.
“By the end of July, there were 70 political prisoners, including 29 political prisoners from 2013, incarcerated, and around 114 activists awaiting trial,” Tun Kyi of the FPPS said. “Since the definition of political prisoner has been agreed to, some [additional] activists will be counted as political prisoners. So we will compile a new list of political prisoners.”