Prior to the November 2010 elections, Burma had been under military rule since 1962. The 2010 elections, Burma’s first in 20 years, were billed by the military government as the next step of its "roadmap to democracy."
In the two years prior to the election, the military government intensified arrests and intimidation of political activists and critics of the government. The number of political prisoners doubled, offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party were forcibly closed, and the party was effectively outlawed due to draconian electoral laws designed the stifle the opposition. There were no rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 13 of the previous 21 years under house arrest, was not allowed to participate in the 2010 elections, and was only released after they were held. Other Burmese activists were locked up for "crimes" such as providing assistance to cyclone victims and peacefully protesting against forced labor.
The elections proved to be a sham. The constitutional structure ensured that the generals would maintain power under a civilian facade. And the military restricted participation of opposition leaders, manipulated ballots, and intimated voters.
Recently, the new government has taken important steps to address its dire human rights record. The government convened national, state, and regional parliaments twice in 2011, enacting laws on freedom of assembly and forming trade unions, and eased official media censorship. The government has allowed the National League for Democracy to register as a political party. On January 12, 2012, Burma state media announced that 651 prisoners would be freed so they can participate in the task of nation-building—at least 300 of them were political prisoners.
While these measures are welcome changes, the rhetorical improvements of the past few months needs to be matched by genuine institutional reforms. The government should address ongoing, serious human rights abuses related to the long-running civil armed conflicts in ethnic minority areas, implement reforms in the criminal justice system, and release all remaining political prisoners.
When the “Behind Bars” campaign began, there were more than 2,100 political activists imprisoned in Burma in more than 90 prisons, jails, and labor camps throughout the country. These prisoners represented a broad cross-section of Burmese society: activists, politicians, journalists, Buddhist monks and nuns, artists, poets, and musicians. They included Burma's most famous comedian, Zargana (also spelled Zarganar, or his real name, Maung Thura), an outspoken critic of military rule for more than 20 years; Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 1988 student-led uprising; Su Su Nway, a prominent labor activist who protested against the widespread use of forced labor by the military; and U Gambira, a Buddhist monk who was one of the key leaders of the September 2007 demonstrations. All of these individuals have since been released.
Many of these activists have been in and out of prison many times. In the past, amnesties of prisoners have been a public relations stunt designed to curry favor with the international community. Prior to the 2010 elections, a total of 38,616 prisoners had been released in five separate amnesties since November 2004. However only 462 were political prisoners, or 1 percent:
- In February 2009, 6,313 prisoners were released, 31 of them were political prisoners.
- In September 2008, 9,002 prisoners were released, 9 of them political prisoners, including the famous journalist, 80-year-old U Win Tin.
- In November 2007, 8,585 prisoners were released, 20 of them were political prisoners.
- In July 2005, around 400 prisoners were released, 341 of them were political prisoners.
- In November and December 2004, 14,318 prisoners were released, 60 of them were political prisoners.
Since the November 2010 elections, Burma’s new government has conducted several amnesties:
- On May 16, President Thein Sein issued Order No. 28/2011, which commuted all death sentences to life in prison or reduced all prisoners’ sentences by one year. An estimated 58 political prisoners were released out of a total of 14,600 prisoners.
- On October 12, the Burmese government released at least 240 political prisoners. The release was part of a government amnesty of 6,359 prisoners said to be of “old age, suffering poor health and disability [and] whose moral behavior has improved after serving an appropriate amount of time.” Those released included famed comedian Zargana, and female labor activist Su Su Nway.
- On January 4, 2012, 34 political prisoners were released. The releases were part of a presidential order that authorized a reduction in prison terms. Prisoners serving sentences longer than 30 years, had their sentences reduced to 30 years; prisoners serving sentences of longer than 20 but less than 30 years, had their sentences reduced to 20 years; and prisoners serving sentences up to 20 years, had their sentences cut by one quarter. Those released were in the final years of their sentences.
- On January 13, 2012, 651 prisoners were released, among them at least 300 political prisoners including prominent members of the 88 Generation students movement, monk leaders, and journalists.
Burma continues to imprison hundreds for peaceful acts of free expression. Prior to the January amnesties, the US State Department had estimated that at least 1,100 political prisoners were detained in Burma and the Thai-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma counted more than 1,500. Given the closed nature of Burma's justice system, the lack of a free press and unsophisticated communications in one of Asia's poorest countries – particularly in remote ethnic areas affected by conflict – each of these lists may omit significant numbers of people being held for the peaceful expression of their political views.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Burmese government to agree to an independent international mechanism to access prisons and publicly report on the whereabouts and condition of remaining political prisoners.