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Burma: Increased number of political prisoners calls for renewed international pressure

Paris, Bangkok, 15 July 2014: Without genuine legislative reform and sustained international pressure, the number of Burma’s political prisoners is set to steadily rise, FIDH and its member organization, the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma), warned today.

As of 10 July 2014, there were 69 political prisoners - including nine women – in jails across Burma. Among those incarcerated were human rights defenders, journalists, members of ethnic-based political organizations, peaceful protestors, activists, and farmers. A year ago, on 15 July 2013, President Thein Sein pledged to release all remaining political prisoners “by the end of the year.” However, Thein Sein failed to fulfill his promise and at the start of 2014, approximately 40 political prisoners remained behind bars.

In addition, the government has greatly reduced the frequency of the meetings of the Political Prisoner Review Committee, the body tasked with identifying political prisoners and making recommendations to the President for their release. Since January 2014, the government convened the Political Prisoner Review Committee only twice.

As a result of the international community’s failure to hold President Thein Sein accountable for not keeping his promise to free all dissidents, the Burmese government has put the issue of the release of political prisoners on the back burner,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. The best way the international community can support Burma’s fragile transition to democracy is to continue to pressure the Burmese government to free all dissidents and repeal oppressive laws,” he added.

In connection with this call for renewed pressure to obtain the release of all political prisoners, FIDH and ALTSEAN-Burma today published the profiles of eight prominent political prisoners who are serving lengthy prison terms or have been jailed because of their activities relating to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Many activists continue to be arbitrarily arrested and face criminal charges under oppressive laws. Since first convening in January 2011, Burma’s Parliament has repealed only two laws, Law 5/96 [1] and the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act [2], out of the 11 oppressive laws that the UN identified as not in line with international standards.

On 18 June, Burma’s Parliament approved amendments to the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law, which perpetuate restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly. Demonstrations still require official permission, which authorities can now refuse only for a “valid reason.” The vague wording of this amendment is likely to result in the rejection of protest permits by the authorities and the subsequent arrest of those who demonstrate without permission. In addition, even though the amended law reduced maximum prison terms for violators from one year to six months, jail terms remain a threat against those who participate in unauthorized demonstrations.

On 12 July, police in Rangoon’s Kamaryut Township charged at least 20 journalists under the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law for holding a peaceful protest against the sentencing of four reporters to 10 years in jail two days earlier.

The recent sentencing of four reporters to 10 years in jail for writing an investigative article and imposing criminal charges on at least 20 of their colleagues for a peaceful protest are ominous signs of things to come. If the number of political prisoners continues to rise at the current rate, Burma is headed in the opposite direction of what Thein Sein promised,” said ALTSEAN-Burma Coordinator and FIDH Secretary-General Debbie Stothard. It’s time to renew the push to release all political prisoners, or Burma risks holding a general election next year with dozens of dissidents behind bars – an achievement for which neither the Burmese government nor the international community should be proud,” she added.