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When I was celebrating the National League for Democracy’s election victory in November 2015, I was very hopeful about my country’s future. One of the things I was so sure of, and hoped to see, was the release of all of the country’s political prisoners. Now, nearly a year since the NLD formed a government, I am very shocked and frustrated to see that there are still many political prisoners in jail — and people are still being targeted for peaceful political activities.
Of course, we all knew that the NLD government would have only limited power and that Burma would not become a democratic country overnight. The party has many things to do in order to bring peace and national reconciliation to the country. But with more than 100 former political prisoners in Parliament, I had hoped that the unconditional release of all remaining prisoners of conscience would be one of the NLD’s top priorities. I am sure other people were thinking the same.
We were even more hopeful when scores of political prisoners were released in April 2016. Family members waited outside the gates of the nation’s penitentiaries to see whether their loved ones would be released or not. There were many joyous family reunions, but there were disappointments too.
Political prisoners like the Kachin farmer Lahpai Gam, who was imprisoned for something he did not do and went through hellish torture in detention, were not included in the release. Even the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared that Lahpai Gam’s arrest was unlawful and that he should be released immediately, but the NLD government seems to have forgotten about him.
On 7 April 2016, a day before many student activists were released from prison, interfaith advocates Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt were sentenced to two more years in prison. They were already serving two years in prison with hard labour for allegedly illegally crossing the border into India. They had both worked with the ruling party in the past and Zaw Zaw Latt was an information officer for a youth department within the NLD. Campaign groups have called for their release but we wait still in vain.
It is true that the NLD does not have power over the police, nor can it interfere with the arrests. However, the NLD has the power to halt prosecutions by dropping the cases, and the president can pardon those already convicted of offences on political grounds. It is very difficult to understand why people like Lahpai Gam, Zaw Zaw Latt and Pwint Phyu Latt remain in jail.
The NLD has not only failed to fully clear the ranks of political prisoners jailed under previous governments, it has also declined to intervene in new arrests as well. As much as I have faith in the NLD, I keep asking myself, why isn’t the NLD doing more to protect activists and their right to speak out?
The surprising thing is that the NLD seems to actively support the arrest of activists, and the party leadership shows worrying signs of intolerance toward criticism. Activists are still arrested for speaking out or for criticising the army. For example, Arakanese activist Khaing Myo Htun was arrested in July 2016 and is standing trial for exposing human rights abuses committed by the Burmese Army. He has been denied bail despite his health deteriorating while behind bars. Another human rights activist, Htin Kyaw, was also arrested in October 2016 for speaking out against judicial corruption. He too is currently on trial.
The Prisoners of Conscience Affairs Committee, which was formed by the previous military-backed government, still hasn’t been reformed to make it credible or independent. There is no way of knowing how many people have been arrested in the ethnic areas simply because of their ethnicity or religion. Outside the gates of the nation’s penitentiaries, there have been no government compensation or rehabilitation programs for former political prisoners to help them rebuild their lives.
A credible and independent Prisoners of Conscience Affairs Committee is essential if we want to see the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Burma.
For many years, political activists have faced harassment, torture, arrest and hardship. It’s now the time for them to be able to express their opinions freely and hold government to account — as usually happens in a country that believes in democracy. Above all, these political activists deserve the human rights and freedom that they have been fighting for their whole lives. The question is, how much longer will they have to wait?