Human rights groups are calling for the final release of hundreds of political prisoners still being held in Myanmar.
“We urgently request that all remaining prisoners be released in accordance with Myanmar's claim of moving towards freedom and democracy,” Mint Mint, a spokesman for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPPB) told IRIN on 27 September.
According to the Thailand-based group, which has been advocating for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar for the past decade, there are currently 311 political prisoners, including 26 monks, still lingering in Burmese jails.
The AAPPB’s call coincides with the arrival of Burmese reformist President Thein Sein in New York this week to attend the annual session of the UN General Assembly, where he is expected to tout his country’s latest democratic reforms and push for an end to western sanctions.
One week earlier, the Burmese Government announced the release of 90 more political prisoners, its fourth amnesty to date, in what many view as another gesture to encourage the lifting of international economic sanctions.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), Burma Campaign UK and Amnesty International are among a string of rights groups echoing AAPPB’s call for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar.
“Donor governments need to press President Thein Sein in New York to release all political prisoners and allow international monitors into the prisons,” Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director said in a statement.
“President Thein Sein claims to be a reformer, but 18 months after becoming president, there are still hundreds of political prisoners, and he has not abolished any of the laws which were used to arrest and jail them,” added Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, a Burma Campaign UK campaign officer.
“For the sake of hundreds of prisoners suffering in appalling conditions, we need to move on from this slow pace of releases. An independent commission should be set up, with UN support, which can identify all those in jail for political reasons, and ensure they are released immediately.”
But for former activists like Salai Yaw Aung, who fled to the jungle in 1988 to escape imprisonment, much of the leverage on the Burmese government may already have been lost.
The United States, the European Union, Australia and other countries have already eased sanctions against the former pariah state.
On 19 September, Washington lifted sanctions against Myanmar’s political leadership, and on 26 September, it announced its intention to drop an import embargo imposed on the country, one of the few economic sanctions still remaining. The move is endorsed by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once a major advocate for sanctions, who is on a 17-day tour of the US.
But “it will be difficult to put international pressure on Myanmar because the US and the EU have already dropped many sanctions against the government,” said Salai Yaw Aung, a former All Burma Student's Democratic Front senior officer.
“It is hard to believe that the government wants reconciliation when there are so many political prisoners still suffering in jail.”
Salai Yaw Aung's father, who was elected as an MP for the opposition National League for Democracy in 1990, was sentenced to 11 years on politics-related charges. He died in prison eight years later from medical complications resulting from poor access to treatment.
Of the more than 300 political prisoners still incarcerated, 57 have serious health problems, the AAPPB reported.
“Many of the families that we keep in contact with pray that the international community will not forget the suffering that these people are going through, both physically and mentally,” AAPPB's Mint Mint said.
On 20 September, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, called on the Burmese government to ensure the reintegration of released prisoners of conscience into society, stressing that “adequate medical and psychosocial services should be provided to those released, particularly those who suffered ill-treatment or were subject to prolonged periods of solitary confinement.”