(New York) – The Burmese government should immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners in Burma to demonstrate a genuine commitment to its touted reform process, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 13, 2011, Human Rights Watch sent a petition of more than 3,000 signatures to President Thein Sein from individuals calling for the release of the approximately 2,000 political prisoners in the country.
“International acclaim for the Burmese government’s reform measures has not yet been matched by action,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The release of the nearly 2,000 political prisoners would be a telling indicator of the government’s sincerity.”
Despite longstanding calls by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and many governments around the world, there have been no significant releases of long-term political prisoners in Burma since 2005. The secretary-general’s latest report on Burma, dated August 5, 2011, states that, “The detention of all remaining political prisoners will continue to overshadow and undermine any confidence in the Government’s efforts.” A May 16, “amnesty,” which reduced all criminal sentences by one year, released only an estimated 77 political prisoners.
In August, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, conducted his first fact-finding mission in the country since February 2010. While noting the seemingly positive signs of change stemming from his official meetings, Quintana stressed that the release of political prisoners is a “central and necessary step towards national reconciliation.”
At Insein prison in Rangoon, Quintana interviewed political prisoners who recounted “testimonies of prolonged sleep and food deprivation during interrogation, beatings, and the burning of bodily parts, including genital organs,” and other forms of torture and ill-treatment. In all meetings with international interlocutors, Burmese officials continued to deny that it holds political prisoners and that all those incarcerated are common criminals. However, following Quintana’s visit, several members of Burma’s Lower House of Parliament proposed a general amnesty for all political prisoners.
The day after Quintana’s visit, a closed court in Rangoon sentenced a former Burmese army officer, Nay Myo Zin, to 10 years in prison under the Electronic Transactions Act for criticizing the government’s national reconciliation efforts. Critics of the government continue to be arbitrarily arrested and face ill-treatment under interrogation.
“New government or not, the Burmese authorities are still jailing people for peaceful speech,” said Pearson. “If this government wants to improve its democratic credentials then it should listen to those in parliament urging the release of all political prisoners.”
The Burmese government has embarked on a campaign of reform since March that promises progressive economic and social policies, efforts to stamp out corruption, and the formation of a National Human Rights Commission. It has engaged in positive rhetoric on promoting human rights including an informal call for exiled political dissidents to return and promises of embarking on peace talks with ethnic groups. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi held her first meeting with President Thein Sein in August, and the government has hosted visits by senior United Nations and European Union officials. The newly confirmed US special envoy and policy coordinator on Burma, Derek Mitchell, is currently in Burma meeting with government and opposition figures.
Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and concerned countries to call on the Burmese government to match its rhetoric with action and start by releasing all political prisoners. Copies of Human Rights Watch’s petition will also be sent to the UN, ASEAN, the US, the EU, China, and India.
“Despite some promises from the government, the human rights of the Burmese people have not improved at all,” Pearson said. “The bar is so low on Burma that small gestures are confused with genuine action. Releasing political prisoners is a key place to start.”
Human Rights Watch’s campaign “Behind Bars: Free Burma's Political Prisoners” seeks to secure the release of all political detainees in Burma, now estimated at 2,000, a number that effectively doubled since 2007. Some of the prominent activists highlighted in the campaign and who continue to serve lengthy sentences 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;
- U Gambira, a 32-year-old monk who was one of the leaders of the peaceful protests of August and September 2007 and is now serving a 63-year sentence;
- Su Su Nway, afemale labor rights activist serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence after raising a banner criticizing Burma's government at the hotel of a visiting UN special envoy;
- Min Ko Naing, a former student leader 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.
The nearly 2,000 prisoners still incarcerated include an estimated 348 members of the National League for Democracy, 222 Buddhist monks involved in the 2007 peaceful protests, 310 ethnic nationality activists, and 38 members of the 88 Generation Students group. Despite some claims that media restrictions have loosened since the 2010 elections, Burma continues to imprison some 23 journalists, including 17 reporters or video-journalists of the Democratic Voice of Burma.