May 2, 2012

In Burma this week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged foreign countries to lift sanctions. At the same time, it was wise of him to keep pushing Burma to release its remaining political prisoners. The fate of these wrongfully imprisoned people, too often overlooked as we celebrate those who have been released, can tell us much about the Burmese government's intentions with regard to reform.

For several years, Mr. Ban and a series of U.N. special envoys have articulated three important indicators of change: the release of all political prisoners, genuine national reconciliation and an inclusive electoral process. Less than a year ago, Burmese officials maintained their decades-long refrain that no political prisoners existed in the country—only people who "breached prevailing laws." How much headway has been made?

In four separate amnesties between May 2011 and mid-January, the government released more than 650 of what its National Human Rights Commission called "prisoners of conscience." Because many of those released were high-profile activists, such as the comedian Zargana and members of the 88 Generation Students Group like Min Ko Naing, the government evidently gambled that it could ease international pressure by releasing political activists. It has largely been successful—international calls for the release of remaining prisoners have been on mute ever since.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, founded and staffed by former prisoners who live in exile, says it has verified another 473 political prisoners, plus 465 cases in the process of verification. Another group, the Former Prisoners Network in Yangon, estimates 445 cases based on interviews with recently released prisoners. Remaining political prisoners include approximately 50 Buddhist monks, many student activists and by some accounts, 18 women. And there are almost certainly more ethnic minority political prisoners than appear on anyone's list.

The authorities respond by claiming that the 125 remaining prisoners remain deserve to stay in jail for security offenses or breaching immigration laws. Yet, Burma's legal system has long been complicit in violating human rights, and these charges are difficult to believe. Many activists face a plethora of charges that are subject to broad interpretation and result in outrageously long prison terms: violations of public order, unlawful association, compromising national security and harmful electronic transactions. Even sending information to the international media could be seen as a crime.

Allegations involving explosives are often tacked on to activists to make them seem dangerous. U Myint Aye, a co-founder of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for alleged offenses under the explosives act, unlawful association and breaches of immigration law. Student activist Thant Zaw's death sentence for high treason in 1989 was commuted to 30 years in prison while another prisoner (since released) admitted to the bombing charges the authorities successfully pinned on Mr. Thant.

It's easy to pin these charges on activists given Burma's penal code, and impossible for charges to be disproven within the current judicial system. Trials, sometimes held behind closed prison doors, fall hopelessly short of international standards of fairness. Courts are not independent.

If President Thein Sein is sincere about resolving these problems, a joint domestic and international review board, with U.N. involvement, could create a credible process to investigate cases in which there is a disagreement about whether a person has been imprisoned for political reasons. This could kickstart broader legal reform to overturn laws stifling basic human rights. One of the most pernicious is Section 401 of the Criminal Procedure Code, effectively a form of parole that could see many released prisoners re-arrested for any perceived or minor offense.

The best U.N. message to President Thein Sein would be one of encouragement: finish the job begun in May last year to ensure that all political prisoners in Burma are identified and set free.

David Scott Mathieson is the senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, and Mr. Zawacki is the researcher on Burma and Thailand for Amnesty International.

More reporting on: