Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has called on President Thein Sein to free all political prisoners and students jailed earlier this year for a peaceful demonstration ahead of general elections, highlighting a shortcoming in the country’s democratization process as it heads into all-inclusive polls on Nov. 8.
The independent human rights group composed of 15 bureaucrats and academics wants the government to grant amnesty to political prisoners who have been sentenced, so they can vote in the elections.
“Out of a good intention for everyone to be able to vote in the elections, we have sent this letter to the president,” said NHRC member Nyan Zaw, whose group sent a formal written request to Thein Sein.
“We want to hold free and fair elections with all political parties, candidates and people,” he said. “We also want sentenced prisoners, detainees and students in custody to participate in the election. If they are released, they all can vote.”
Political prisoners who are released can vote only after they register with the Union Election Commission (UEC), the body overseeing Myanmar’s polls, he said. Those in custody awaiting trial also can vote.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a nonprofit human rights organization based in Mae Sot, Thailand, Myanmar has nearly 100 political prisoners with 471 more awaiting trial.
The AAPP issued a call on Oct. 22 for the right to political freedom to be upheld in the lead-up to the election and for an end to the arrests of members and supporters of opposition parties.
The NHRC’s request included a call for the release of the roughly 60 students being detained at Tharrawaddy prison, Bago region, on charges of unlawful assembly, rioting and causing injury to government workers during a peaceful protest on education policy that turned violent earlier this year.
Nyan Zaw pointed out that Thein Sein has the authority to include the detained students in any amnesty he grants to sentenced prisoners.
Support for the move
Tin Oo, vice chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, told RFA he supports the move to release all political prisoners so they can vote in the national elections, which are held every five years.
He also said the students in Tharrawaddy prison, who are being detained merely for protesting against the controversial National Education Law, should be let go.
“It’s time for them to be released,” he said.
Tun Kyi, secretary of the Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS), a collective of rights advocates that served time under Myanmar’s former military regime, also welcomed the NHRC’s move.
“It’s the right time for President Thein Sein’s government to release political prisoners under the umbrella of national reconciliation,” he said.
Thein Sein’s administration sought to sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with all of Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups as the first step toward national reconciliation, but only eight agreed to sign the document on Oct. 15.
Tun Kyi said despite the government’s efforts to get the NCA signed to foster national reconciliation, none of the country’s current prisoners charged under Article 17(1) of the country’s Unlawful Associations Act have been released.
Many political prisons and student protesters have been arrested under the article which sets forth that anyone who is a member of or participates in an unlawful association faces a fine and imprisonment of between two and three years.
“They [the authorities] are still keeping political prisoners and releasing them as part of a give-and-take [process],” he said.
Doubts about an amnesty
But other lawmakers and former political prisoners doubted that the president would grant an amnesty for political prisoners to vote in the elections which observers believe the NLD is favored to win.
Former political prisoner Zaw Thet Htwey, who was among more than 600 detainees released in January 2012 under a presidential amnesty, said the government would not likely take action because it usually doesn’t release prisoners whenever the NHRC submits a request.
“It appears as though the opposition democratic force (NLD) will win the elections, which means the current government will have to turn over its duties by March 31,” said the journalist and political advocate.
Phone Myint Aung, an upper house lawmaker from the National Democratic Force party, said Thein Sein alone cannot grant such an amnesty but must first obtain a recommendation from the military commander-in-chief.
In the meantime, activists in several cities have publicly demonstrated their support for four students in Tharrawaddy prison, who have gone on a hunger strike.
Members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the umbrella organization for all student unions in the country, in Monywa district of Sagaing region, as well as students in the town of Taungdwingyi in Magway region and Pyay in Bago region prayed at pagodas and marched with banners to support the students who are on a hunger strike.
Six other activists from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society Group, formerly known as the 88 Generation Students, and the Karen National Organization are on a protest march from Bago region to the capital Naypyidaw to demand that Thein Sein abolish Article 17(1), arrived in the town of Nyaunglaypin on Friday.
The activists told RFA that authorities have prevented them from passing through some townships as a group. In such cases, they are walking through as individuals, which is legal and does not violate the Unlawful Associations Act, they said.
“Authorities in Yedashe [township] didn’t accept our application to pass through,” activist Nang Mu Khan said. “They said they can’t let us walk through their township because the election is getting closer. They asked us to postpone our march to Naypyidaw.”
Meanwhile, five other students and three of their supporters who are in Tharrawaddy prison have dropped their legal counsel because they have lost faith in the judicial system, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.
On Tuesday, Myanmar’s Human Rights Defenders Forum (HRDF), a civil society coalition that supports and protects human rights defenders, joined jailed student leader Aung Hmaing San, who is on a hunger strike, in calling for the release of all political prisoners ahead of the elections, local news outlet Mizzima reported.
Prison authorities have placed Aung Hmaing San in solitary confinement for not following prison rules, Eleven Myanmar media group reported.
Reported by Moe Klyar Oo, Khin Khin Ei and Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.