(Bangkok) – The government of Burma  should immediately release all remaining political prisoners and lift travel and other restrictions on those freed, Human Rights Watch said today. Independent international monitors should be permitted unhindered access to Burma’s prisons to provide a public accounting of all remaining political prisoners.
Burmese President Thein Sein has issued three amnesties to more than 300 political prisoners in the last year, yet at least several hundred are believed to remain behind bars.
“The Burmese government is dragging its feet rather than fulfilling its promises to release all political prisoners,” said Phil Robertson , deputy Asia director. “Donor countries promoting reform should actively press Burma to meet its human rights commitments by immediately freeing the remaining political prisoners and lifting all restrictions against them.”
Since July 2012, Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 recently released political prisoners from various ethnic groups who said that the Burmese government placed severe restrictions on them, including on their freedom of movement.
Burma’s Ministry of Home Affairs has refused to issue passports to many former political prisoners, including democracy and human rights activists, public interest lawyers, and journalists. Former political prisoners told Human Rights Watch they were informed by the ministry that they were ineligible to obtain a passport for a period of one year following their release, but provided no legal basis for this decision. One former prisoner said he had been denied a passport since his release in 2010, and that the Special Branch on two occasions in 2012 had interrogated him regarding his most recent passport application. Former political prisoners told Human Rights Watch this restriction has prevented them from travelling abroad to visit family, attend conferences, obtain education or training, and receive awards. The standard processing time for a passport in Burma is 21 days.
While several prominent former political prisoners have been given passports and traveled abroad, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Zargana, and blogger Nay Phone Latt, they are exceptions. On September 19, the 88 Generation democracy activist Min Ko Naing is due to receive the United States National Endowment for Democracy’s 2012 Democracy Award alongside four other prominent Burmese in Washington, DC. His passport application was initially denied and only later approved after his advocacy efforts. However, Min Ko Naing has refused to accept his passport until the applications of his 88 Generation colleagues, such as Ant Bwe Kyaw and Pyone Cho, are also approved. Since April 2012, the authorities have denied passports to at least 19 of the 88 Generation student activists.
Less prominent ethnic minority activists have also been denied passports. An ethnic Zomi former political prisoner known as “Anthony,” who was arrested and charged with violating of the Unlawful Associations Act after his involvement in the crushed 2007 Saffron Revolution, was denied a passport when he applied in early June 2012.
“There could be at least two reasons why they are denying us passports,” Anthony told Human Rights Watch. “One, they still want to suppress us, and two, they don't want us to go out and spread the truth about what happened in Burma or in the prison itself.” As a result, his plans to travel abroad to attend democracy training courses have been delayed.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is broadly accepted as reflecting customary international law, provides in article 13(2) that, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
On August 29, the US government waived visa restrictions on President Thein Sein, allowing him to travel in the United States for the first time from September 24-27.
“President Thein Sein is denying passports to former political prisoners, just as he is able to travel in the US after years on a blacklist,” Robertson said. “Accepting all passport requests from ex-political prisoners would close one of the huge gaps in Burma’s touted march to reform.”
Released political prisoners have also been prevented from resuming their educational pursuits at universities in Burma. At least 15 students imprisoned on various charges after the 2007 Saffron Revolution and released on January 13 have been prohibited from re-attending their university classes since their release. They said they were denied entry by their respective heads of universities, who they believe are closely linked to the government-run Ministry of Education. University officials told the students that their prolonged absence from classes rendered them unable to attend classes again as full-time students. On March 16, the 15 students sent letters to President Thein Sein seeking his intervention to allow them to re-enter university to complete their studies. The letters have gone unanswered.
“We are not criminals, we were political prisoners. We were released by presidential amnesty. We feel we have a right to re-attend the class,” said former political prisoner Nyein Linn. “We think this is discrimination against the political prisoners. If we were in the university then we would be working for the student union, and the government doesn’t want that.”
University student unions have played an important role in Burma’s struggles for independence, democracy, and human rights, which have made successive governments from the colonial era to the present day wary of them. The All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU), for example, consistently opposed military rule and faced continual persecution by state authorities. Former student political prisoners recently organized a new national student union but have faced intimidation from local authorities who have gone to student groups and told them not to organize student unions.
“Government repression against former political prisoners raises concerns about the true extent of reforms in Burma,” Robertson said. “A rights-respecting Burma needs to harness the skills of its former political prisoners, not keep them under restraint.”
The Burmese government has also failed to address significant psychosocial and economic needs of former political prisoners when they attempt to reintegrate into society, Human Rights Watch said. Several former prisoners told Human Rights Watch that they face great difficulties reintegrating into their families and society after years or decades in prison. Many are suffering from severe physical and psychological health problems resulting from years of torture and detention in dismal conditions, often in isolation from other prisoners or in prisons far from their families. After release, social support structures to assist them with services are largely non-existent, meaning the ex-political prisoners need support from often ill-prepared family members. Several nongovernmental organizations have sought to fill gaps in services and support.
Shell (not his real name), an activist who spent a total of 14 years in prison for his involvement with pro-democracy activists and associations, told Human Rights Watch, “Most of the political prisoners are very poor and they suffer a lot when they are released. They are homeless, unemployed, and face a daily struggle. When I was released on January 13, I didn’t know where I lived or what I should do. I had no home, no family, no money, no job.”
The United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, calls for reparations for victims of human rights abuses, including compensation, restitution, and equal and effective access to justice, as well as accountability for those responsible. Donor governments should support the efforts of nongovernmental organizations in Burma to assist former political prisoners with health care, vocational training, and reintegration into society.
Accounts from former political prisoners denied passports
I was in Insein and Moulmein prisons from 2000 to 2009. I tried to get a passport when I was released but I was told I was on a blacklist, and I tried again in 2012. The Special Branch already interrogated me twice this year. They asked me many questions like, “Are you still working on political issues?” I said, “Yes, of course I am.” They know me. They asked, “Which countries have you been to?” and, “Before you went into exile, what did you do in Burma?”... According to the law they have to issue passports to citizens of the country, even to people who have been in prison. It is my right to get a passport. I spent nine years of my life in prison and was released legally.
–Ethnic Arakan former political prisoner, Rangoon, July 2012
I went to Bangkok for a conference at Mahidol University on human rights, a three-day seminar, and for medical treatment, and then I came back. I was there about one week, then I stayed in Rangoon one week and then after that I was invited to a seminar in Hong Kong, so I also attended that. I arrived to Rangoon on July 27 and they took my passport at the airport. ... They don’t want me going to other countries without letting them know. They want to know where I’m going. ... I am going around the country giving speeches on labor issues and to farmers about weak points of the constitution and land rights. The current president did not draft the constitution, it was the last group, and so I point out the weaknesses. The government is not pleased with that. In 2007, during the Saffron Revolution I was one of the main lawyers. I had a lot of clients. So the government always observes me.
–U Aung Thane, public interest lawyer and former political prisoner, whose passport was seized on July 27, 2012, Rangoon
Only Min Ko Naing was given a passport. All the 88 Generation students requested passports at the same time but Min Ko Naing is the only one who got a passport. ... Every citizen can get a passport within 21 days but we have waited for four months and still have no passports. One of the ministers said all the released prisoners had to wait one year for the passports, but we don’t know why. Why do we have to wait one year?
–Ant Bwe Kyaw, former political prisoner, Rangoon, August 2012
I applied for a passport three months ago but the home minister has not yet issued my passport to go abroad. After my release from Thaya prison in March 2010, I went to attend an MA in law course at Dago University. Both the directors dismissed my application, and after my release the Supreme Court revoked my law license in March 2010. Now I am a recognized agent but I have no rights to represent clients in front of criminal court. ... I want to attend an LLM in public interest law at UCLA [in the US] but they won’t grant me a passport to go.
–Pyo Phu, public interest lawyer and former political prisoner, Rangoon, August 2012