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Burma’s Political Prisoners and U.S. Policy

January 4th, 2021  •  Author:   Congressional Research Service  •  3 minute read
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Despite a campaign pledge in 2015 that they “would not arrest anyone as political prisoners,” Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have failed to fulfil this promise since they took control of Burma’s Union Parliament and the government’s executive branch in April 2016. While presidential pardons have been granted for some political prisoners, people continue to be arrested, detained, tried, and imprisoned for political reasons. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP(B), a Thailand-based, nonprofit human rights organization formed in 2000 by former Burmese political prisoners, there were 590“individuals oppressed due to political activity”—including 35 sentenced to prison—as of the end of November 2020.

During its five years in power, the NLD government has provided pardons for Burma’s political prisoners on seven occasions. The latest was on April 17, 2020, when President Win Myint pardoned nearly 25,000 prisoners, of which 10 were considered political prisoners by AAPP(B).

Aung San Suu Kyi and her government, as well as the Burmese military, however, also have demonstrated a willingness to use Burma’s laws to suppress the opinions of their political opponents and restrict press freedoms. In April 2020, several reporters were charged under Article 50 (a) and Article 52 (a) of the 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law for publishing interviews with representatives of the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed organization that the NLD government has officially declared a terrorist group.

The Union Parliament has repealed or amended a few of the various laws that authorities use to arrest and prosecute people for political reasons, but has also passed new laws that some observers see as limiting political expression and protection of human rights. In addition, the Tatmadaw, which either directly or indirectly controls all of the nation’s security forces (including the Myanmar Police Force),has not demonstrated an interest in ending Burma’s history of political imprisonment. Tatmadaw leaders have brought multiple defamation cases against journalists who publish stories critical of Burma’s military.

The Burma Political Prisoners Assistance Act (H.R. 2327, S. 2069) would have made it U.S. policy to support the immediate and unconditional release of “all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Burma,” and require the Secretary of State to “provide assistance to civil society organizations in Burma that work to secure the release of prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Burma.”

Congress may consider if and how to integrate concerns regarding political imprisonment into overall U.S. policy in Burma. Congress may also choose to assess how other important issues in Burma should influence U.S. policy, including efforts to end the nation’s ongoing low-grade civil war, the forced deportation of more than 700,000 Rohingya from Rakhine State in 2017, and prospects for constitutional and legal reform designed to establish a democratically elected civilian government that respects the human rights and civil liberties of all Burmese people.

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