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No escape for political prisoners in Myanmar

Macabre irony prevails as both President Win Myint and State Chancellor Suu Kyi were political detainees before taking power

No escape for political prisoners in Myanmar

This combination of photos taken on Sept. 3, 2018 shows journalists Kyaw Soe Oo (left) and Wa Lone being escorted by police after their sentencing by a court to jail in Yangon. Myanmar's Supreme Court on April 23, 2019 rejected an appeal against their seven-year sentences on charges linked to their reporting of the Rohingya crisis. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)

On the morning of April 17, the families of dozens of political prisoners battled the summer heat as they waited outside the jail holding their loves ones praying their names would be included in the government's amnesty.

That same day, President Win Myint announced pardons for 9,551 prisoners including 16 foreigners, part of an annual act of forgiveness undertaken to commemorate the New Year in this Southeast Asian nation.

However, the vast majority of relatives were disappointed as they learned that only two political prisoners were granted a presidential pardon out of more than 9,000 inmates who received clemency that day. 

Most of those freed had been incarcerated on drug-related offenses.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters reporters who were arrested in December 2017 after exposing the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims, were not on the list.

In fact, Myanmar's highest court ruled on April 23 that they would stay in prison as it reconfirmed the validity of their seven-year sentences, rejecting an appeal by their lawyers. 

In an opinion piece published two days later, British human rights activist Benedict Rogers described the court's decision as "a hammer blow for democracy" and another backwards step for Myanmar.

The fact they had recently been honored with a Pulitzer Prize for shining a light on the atrocities carried out by Myanmar's military and vigilantes did nothing to sway the court's opinion.

The judges also appeared immune to the widespread criticism the case has drawn from the United Nations, and various human rights and press freedom groups — a status quo that has reportedly led journalists to live in fear in the "new Myanmar."

On April 26, the president announced that he had decided to pardon another 6,948 prisoners, including two ethnic Kachin activists widely regarded by rights groups as political prisoners. Other high-profile detainees, including former child soldier Aung Ko Htwe, were omitted from the list.

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In Myanmar, 41 political prisoners were behind bars as of April 26, with another 90 awaiting trial in prison, and 228 released on bail awaiting trial, according to a Thailand-based human rights group called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

The AAPP defines a political prisoner as "anyone who is arrested because of their perceived or active involvement or supporting role in political movements with peaceful or resistant means."

Political prisoners who are either in jail or facing trial include those who criticized the government and/or military, peaceful protesters, farmers, and land rights activists, according to the AAPP.

Zero tolerance

Win Myint, a former lawyer and pro-democracy activist who also served times as a political prisoner, serves under State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi — Myanmar's de facto leader who was also a political prisoner forced to live under house arrest.

Suu Kyi, a Nobel prize laureate, has drawn flak for a range of issues, including failing to free all political prisoners and doing too little to protect persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

Aung Myo Kyaw, a spokesperson for the AAPP, said the agency had hoped to see more political prisoners released.

"(They) are not destroying society. They are not criminals. If they were released, they would be able to take part in nation building," Kyaw told ucanews.com.

Kyaw, also a former political prisoner, said the group would continue to fight for the release of all prisoners of conscience.

"Aung San Suu Kyi has said that even one political prisoner is too much, so none of them should be in jail," Kyaw added.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, was also highly critical of Suu Kyi's civilian government, saying, "they are increasingly acting like the repressive military governments of the past."

"There's no excuse for the failure to release political prisoners who have simply been imprisoned for voicing opinions the government doesn't like, or peacefully protesting for their rights," he said.

Khin Zaw Win, director of the Yangon-based Tampadipa Institute, said the elected government has made the issue a low priority.

He recalled how Win Myint was jailed for being a political dissident, and questioned how the incumbent president could have so little sympathy for those who shared similar beliefs.

"They aren't petty thieves," he said. "Why does the government fail to recognize their status as political prisoners?"

Under the former junta, military courts would typically sentence such prisoners within minutes, with defense lawyers barred and convictions guaranteed.

‘No political prisoners'

On April 22, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which falls under the purview of Myanmar's military, boldly announced there were no political prisoners in the country. It claimed that anyone who was behind bars had earned their place there by breaking the country's laws.

"This is another example of how the tactics used by past military governments are re-surfacing in today's (so-called) democratic government," Robertson said.

Myanmar's military still wields considerable sway as it shares power with a civilian-led government that won a landslide victory in 2015.

In 2016, Maj. Gen. Aung Soe, the deputy home affairs minister, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the term "political prisoners" in relation to convicts in the country.

Pe Than, a Lower House MP for the Arakan National Party (ANP) in Rakhine, said parliament "needs to find the courage to push for the recognition of political prisoners."

He asked why MPs from the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) "don't dare to raise the issue in parliament?"

Robertson said that Suu Kyi and other party leaders have intimidated MPs who were once political prisoners themselves into staying silent on the sensitive issue.

"There's a sad lack of political courage and principles in today's NLD, starting at the top of the party," he said.

The party should work with the AAPP and other human rights groups and NGOs with experience of protecting political prisoners to set out a clear procedure for identifying and recognizing them, he added.

"All persons who are determined to be political prisoners should be immediately and unconditionally released, with an apology from the government for detaining them and compensation for their suffering," Robertson told ucanews.com.

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