(New York) - Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's release should be the first step for Burma's military government to free more than 2,100 political prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. The government released Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate, from house arrest today, in accordance with Burmese law, under which her house arrest order expired on November 13, 2010.
"Aung San Suu Kyi should never have been imprisoned in the first place," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Her release now is a deeply cynical ploy by the military government to distract the international community from its illegitimate elections."
Aung San Suu's Kyi's release comes soon after the November 7 elections in Burma that the ruling junta designed to entrench military rule with a civilian façade. Burma's military rulers have repeatedly imprisoned Suu Kyi, the daughter of Burma's leading independence figure, General Aung San, for her charismatic promotion of democracy and human rights in Burma and her leadership of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The party won an election landslide in 1990, but was never permitted to assume power.
As this chronology shows, Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years. She was first arrested by Burma's military government in 1989 and held under house arrest until 1995. The military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), placed her under house arrest a second time in 2000, and she was released in 2002. The SPDC detained her for a third time in 2003 after an attack on her convoy while she was traveling in the country. Her house arrest order was extended by another year in May 2008, and it was expected to be unlawfully extended again in May 2009.
The military government, however, used the bizarre incident in which an American man swam across a nearby lake to her house in May 2009 as an excuse to put her on trial - for the first time during her periods of detention. She was sentenced to house arrest for another 18 months. Political trials in Burma are conducted by judges who are not independent, and the trials do not meet international fair trial standards.
"Suu Kyi has been in a revolving door from detention to freedom for more than 20 years, so the real question is how long she will be free this time and under what conditions." Pearson said. "If the military government is serious about increasing political space after the elections then it will release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally."
Human Rights Watch said that this month's elections were not credible, with access to Burma largely closed to observers, and reports - particularly from ethnic areas - of serious voting irregularities, such as questionable "advance voting ballots" submitted to shore up support for the military-backed parties. Recently released official results from the elections point to an overwhelming victory by the military-formed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with more than 90 percent of the national upper house seats and 85 percent of the national level lower house seats.
Human Rights Watch's campaign, "2100 in 2010: Free Burma's Political Prisoners," aims to increase international awareness and pressure for the release of all political prisoners in Burma in 2010. Here are key facts about the arrests of civil society leaders, journalists, monks, artists, students, and other critics of Burma's military government.
Human Rights Watch said the focus should turn to the other leading rights defenders and political prisoners still held in Burma's squalid jails. They include:
- Zargana, Burma's most famous comedian, who is serving a 35-year sentence for criticizing the military government's slow response to Cyclone Nargis;
- Su Su Nway, a female labor rights activist serving an 8½-year sentence after raising a banner criticizing Burma's government at the hotel of a visiting United Nations special envoy;
- U Gambira, a 30-year-old monk who was one of the leaders of the peaceful protests known as the "Saffron Revolution" in August and September 2007 and is now serving a 63-year sentence;
- Min Ko Naing, a former student leader currently serving a 65-year sentence; and
- Nay Phone Latt, a 30-year-old blogger who used his blog to spread news about the 2007 protests and was subsequently sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Human Rights Watch called on world leaders to turn up the pressure to free these and the remaining more than two thousand political prisoners in the country.