On January 22, the Myanmar government sent a contradictory message on its sentencing of political prisoners. Naypyidaw released 52 political prisoners while on the same day sentencing Kachin activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee to six months in jail for a Facebook post. The 52 political prisoners released from five prisons nationwide last week – including Myintkyina, Putaoo and Insein – were part of the 101 total prisoners released by the government.
The release of the political prisoners comes after recent pressure on the country’s current president Thein Sein by international governments and human rights groups. Following the announcement, some dismissed the amnesty as a cheap political move by Thein Sein before he leaves office – and a small one at that given the number.
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) based in Mae Sot, Thailand, stated that a “relatively small release of political prisoners demonstrate that the government continues to harbor resentment and animosity toward those that oppose them.” The group noted that 408 political prisoners are currently awaiting trial for political actions.
Myanmar still has many other political prisoners languishing in jail. For example, pro-democracy activist Htin Lin Oo was jailed for insulting Buddhism. Additionally, on January 19, 2007, Saffron Revolution leader U Gambira was re-arrested for immigration charges. He had previously spent more than four years in prison and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being tortured and put in solitary confinement.
Trauma specialist Rory Wagee, who treated Gambira for PTSD in Chiang Mai, said in a letter circulating on Twitter and Facebook via journalist Veronica Pedrosa on January 20: “I felt great sadness and anger when I heard that he had been imprisoned…this action will have produced a catastrophic effect on his fragile recovery from PTSD.”
“The experience of imprisonment will have retraumatized Gambira and he will have already experienced unbearable amounts of psychological suffering since being arrested,” he wrote.
Another example is Kachin activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, who was arrested without a warrant and with both his phone and computer confiscated after being charged under the 2013 Telecommunication Law. According to Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy organization that works in Myanmar, there are concerns about his health as he has severe asthma and likely does not have his inhaler in prison.
Other activists that should be freed include the over 50 peaceful student protesters from the March 2015 demonstration against a national education bill in Letpadan. At the time, police had used excessive force during the crackdown and brutally beat unarmed protesters with batons.
As far as we know, at least one student activist Naing Ye Wai was released on January 22. But the rest continue to suffer in prison. In a new report released on January 25, by All Burma Federation of Student Unions, the Letpadan Justice Committee, and Justice Trust cites evidence of detainees suffering from serious medical conditions and no access to healthcare in Thayawaddy Prison. According to Fortify Rights, 24 of the 53 detainees in Thayawaddy Prison have potentially life-threatening medical conditions.
“President Thein Sein and his government bear ultimate responsibility for the treatment of these detainees and should intervene immediately on their behalf” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.
Many Muslims in Myanmar, particularly the Rohingya, have been sentenced to jail and long court cases. This includes a well-known case where six men were charged with publishing a calendar that described the country’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya, along with another where a dozen men were convicted for supposed links to an armed group. Both cases, according to activist and human rights groups, are believed to be politically motivated (See: “Myanmar’s Government Is Persecuting Muslims Through Court Convictions”).
Many of the political prisoners in Myanmar are charged for violating section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, according to Human Rights Watch. The law requires anyone gathering for public groups to get advanced approval from the authorities.
Following the prisoner release, Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement that “amnesties that are followed by the arrest and sentencing of more government critics cannot be called progress – and instead smack of making room in jails for new political prisoners…this revolving door of political prisoner releases and convictions needs to stop.”
If Myanmar’s government is truly serious about improving its record on political prisoners, it should release all of them immediately and unconditionally and send a clear message instead of a contradictory one.
John Quinley III is a Bangkok-based researcher focused on human rights, refugees, migrants, and development in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar and Thailand.