Recent comments by Presidential Spokesperson Zaw Htay, as well as the release of a report by the US Congressional Research Service have raised the serious and present issue that was long a major focus of the international community and a major criticism of the military junta during its iron fisted rule – political prisoners. It not only reminds us of the essential advocacy work that former political prisoners continue to do to release those in jail for expressing their political opinion or being arbitrarily deemed an associate of an unlawful organization, but also a grim reminder of the lack of progress that the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has made in resolving this issue.
Zaw Htay, Presidential Spokesperson, commented in a press conference on 8 January that “Someone should be considered a political prisoner only if they are arrested or sentenced to prison for staging a protest or expressing their political opinions in legal ways…this definition does not apply to anyone who is arrested for breaking an existing law.” This is extremely disappointing and unfortunately all-too-familiar to those current and former political prisoners who have experienced the reality of what breaking existing laws means. It means breaking intentionally vaguely worded, arbitrarily used and repressive pieces of legislation that are designed specifically as tools of persecution. Over the years people have been charged and lost many years in prison, some of whom have experienced brutal torture or even lost their lives, for ‘breaking existing laws.’ These include the Unlawful Associations Act which has a long history as a tool for arresting ethnic people in particular for simply being in the proximity of an ethnic armed organization, or sections of the Penal Code that render illegal the making or publishing of statements deemed to “cause fear or alarm to the public” – often used against journalists.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an organization founded and run by former political prisoners to advocate for the release of those remaining in jail and provide services to those released, published a statement in response to Zaw Htay’s comments, calling for clarification of the definition of a political prisoner. They state that “As long as the government does not officially establish the definition of a political prisoner, the definition of a political prisoner will continue to be debated. AAPP strongly urges the government to try to work as soon as possible to establish a definition of political prisoners which includes the views and opinions of organizations and individuals greatly involved in these issues.” The issue of a definition is also made by a recent US Congressional Research Service report, which while acknowledging that there is no universally accepted definition, highlights the problem of the previous and current government’s continuing use of the term, “prisoner of conscience.” For AAPP and others it is too narrow and excludes those who engage in political opposition and/or are linked with ethnic armed organizations. Despite efforts made over the years by civil society to pass into law a definition of political prisoner, it remains a contested term that is used selectively to include and exclude categories of prisoners. Additionally, it is important to note that while some human rights activists are included in the definition of political prisoners, some rights defenders such as labor, land and environmental rights defenders are not included in the definition of political prisoners by AAPP. This also needs deliberation among rights advocates in Myanmar, and all those working on the issue of political prisoners. The report urges the US Congress to discuss and address matters related to Myanmar including repressive legislation, working towards an official definition of term political prisoners, and making assistance to the government contingent on progress on the unconditional release of such prisoners.
The issue of political prisoners is still hugely important because today there are still many people either in jail or facing charges for defying unjust and oppressive laws, policies and wrong doings of the government and the Myanmar military, or simply exercising their rights to assembly, association, expression or belief. According to AAPP’s latest political prisoner numbers, as of December there are 42 people serving sentences inside prison, 196 facing trial in prison and a further 363 awaiting trial outside, totalling 601 political prisoners. Added to this are the other categories of political prisoners such as the labor, land and environmental activists not included in AAPP’s lists.
That there still remain hundreds of political prisoners is particularly disappointing as over 100 NLD members of parliament were in fact political prisoners, while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself was under house arrest for many years. In fact, under the NLD-led Government attacks on freedom of expression have been well-documented by the activist organization, Athan, who have highlighted in particular the use of the Telecommunications Act to charge people for defamation who have dared to criticise the military or the government, including lawsuits filed by NLD MPs. Furthermore, as Burma Campaign UK (BCUK) have pointed out, the annual presidential prisoner amnesties that occur around Burmese New Year have contained less and less political prisoners among those released. According to AAPP, in 2016, 115 political prisoners were released to coincide with the Burmese New Year in 2016 compared to only 10 political prisoners in 2020, while the overall number has actually increased in this time period.
The very fact that AAPP has the same mandate as it did when operating in times of military rule is instructive of the lack of political will by the NLD-led Government to resolve this stain on Myanmar’s reputation. AAPP’s swift refutation of Presidential Spokesperson, Zaw Htay’s crass and irresponsible remarks was necessary and it is hoped that more will be done by the NLD-led government in its second term to establish an inclusive definition of political prisoners, to release them unconditionally as well as drop all charges currently faced by activists and human rights defenders, and amend or repeal the repressive legislation that has been used to take away their freedom. It is also welcome that the US Congressional Research Service Report urges the new Congress to take action to pressure the NLD government on this issue, and that the topic of political prisoners will be the focus of its 117th US Congress. It is hoped that the US Congress will act to catalyze more effective US policy on Myanmar’s political prisoners, including a strong call for an immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and to drop charges against activists and human rights defenders. The new Biden administration must not continue business as usual in Myanmar, given the lack of progress in the past four years, as well as the failures of the Obama administration’s Myanmar policy. As former political prisoner, joint secretary of AAPP, and long time advocate for the release of political prisoners, Bo Kyi puts, “Recognizing our political status and beginning a process for reparations can only make the transition to democracy smoother, promote national reconciliation, and uphold individual dignity, allowing the government to focus on the multitude of social, political and economic demands this country faces.”
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Fortify Rights
By Human Rights Watch
By UNICEF Myanmar
By Human Rights Watch
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”