The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) criticized the Burma government for failing to keep it’s promise to release all political prisoners, expressing concerns that the number of political prisoners in Burma, following a Presidential amnesty in 2012, is now on the increase.
“President U thein Sein announced that he would release all political prisoners in Burma but in reality this has not happened – he has not kept his word. Aung Myo Kyaw, project administrator at AAPP, said in an interview with Karen News.
“The government are still putting people behind bars for ‘criminal acts’ when, in fact, they are acts of political activism,” Aung Myo Kyaw said, himself a former political prisoner who spent nine years in jail for his political activities.
The AAPP said it had been monitoring the arrest of activists with grave concern, and that the government was using criminal laws to repress opposition to politically sensitive issues, like corruption, and land confiscation by government cronies.
“Around 70 people are currently in prisons in Burma while approximately a further 150 are facing charges under Article 18, 19, 427 and 447. These laws, indeed the current legal system as a whole, are undemocratic – they stifle dissent.” Aung Myo Kyaw added.
International human rights organisations maintain that Burma’s government is using criminal laws to clamp down on political activism.
“The problem is government officials and the police frequently press politically trumped up charges to arrest activists, and they get away with it because of Burma’s politically compliant judiciary which is still acting like it did under the days of military administration,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said in an interview with Karen News.
“If Thein Sein is serious about reform, he should start by pressing the Hluttaw to revoke the dozens of repressive and draconian laws that are still on the books,” Mr. Robertson added, referring to the name of Burma’s house of representatives.
The laws most used against activists were articles 18, 19, 427 and 447 of the penal code, AAPP said. Article 18 and 19 require all protests to be signed off by authorities before they can proceed. Officials often refuse permission for peaceful protests. Activists, frustrated by multiple rebuttals occasionally go ahead with a protest, but risk a one-year prison sentence and a 30,000 Kyatt fine ($3,000). Articles 427 and 447 cover trespassing and vandalism, and have also been used to imprison activists and journalists. In just one example, Zaw Pe, a journalist at Democratic Voice of Burma was arrested and sentenced in April this year to one year in prison after ‘disturbing a civil servant’ while investigating a corruption story. Human Rights Watch notes that Burma’s government has arrested at least eight journalists since December 2013.
Mr. Robertson said that the abuse of criminal laws to jail political opponents was at “crisis” point, stating, “We’re very concerned that Burma’s authorities are charging activist critics willy-nilly, with whatever provisions of the penal code that they think they can fit to the situation. This is deepening the lack of rule of law crisis that is engulfing Burma, as politically and economically powerful persons use the law as they like to silence anyone who criticizes them,” Mr. Robertson said.
Aung Myo Kyaw noted that the usual sentence for activists was between three to six months, but the government was making the punishment worse by deliberately moving prisoners to prisons far away from their families.
“We are seriously concerned of the government’s tactic of sending prisoners to prisons far away from their families so they are isolated and cannot meet their loved ones while they are in prison. We see this as a form of torture.”
Supporting Former Prisoners
Former political prisoners claim that even when they are released, they face many challenges, in finding work or coping with trauma suffered while in prison. AAPP, which was founded in 2000, supports current and former political prisoners by giving them money, vocational training, finding work, psychosocial support, food and medicine.
Saw Thet Thun, of AAPP, spent almost 20 years in prisons across the country. He said that though prison conditions had improved, the government still treated activists in prison like “dogs.”
“Although conditions are better than before we are not yet fully free. The government do not see us as human – they see us as animals, like dogs. Even today former political prisoners cannot get government jobs, many work as taxi drivers to survive.”
Saw Thet Thun said that peacefully struggling for a democratic Burma risked prison time, but was worth the risk.
“Our message is that we want people to fight peacefully for their rights. We must act, even if we can be arrested, we must peacefully struggle to get democracy. There can be no national reconciliation in Burma as long as there are political prisoners. Just one political prisoner in Burma is one too many.”