Burma announced Thursday that it would establish a presidential steering committee to “grant liberty” to those imprisoned for voicing political dissent, in the government’s first public acknowledgement that it is holding political prisoners in the country’s jails.
“Committee to be formed to grant liberty to remaining political prisoners,” read a headline carried on the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which signaled the first usage of the term that Burma’s government had avoided for decades.
The article said that the Political Prisoners Review Committee, led by presidential advisor Soe Thein, would provide a definition of who is a “prisoner of conscience” among the country’s jailed and work to free them.
Members of the committee have not yet been picked, but will be selected from a pool of government representatives, civil society groups, and other political party members, the newspaper said.
President Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners as part of sweeping reforms since he came to power in March 2011, but the Burmese government never officially acknowledged them as such.
As recently as November, the government said it would review all “politically concerned” cases in the country.
Western nations have long made the release of all political prisoners a precondition for the lifting of sanctions against Burma, which were put in place to punish repression under the country’s former military regime.
Sanctions have since been eased, due to significant reform progress in Burma, but rights groups estimate that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars.
Bo Kyi, joint-secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) welcomed the news of the committee’s formation and applauded the government’s acknowledgement of the term “political prisoner.”
But he told RFA’s Burmese Service that the government’s definition of political prisoner could vary from that used by the civil society groups that monitor them.
“There are about 380 political prisoners on our list. Two hundred and thirty-nine people are in jails and the rest are those who have been facing the courts as political prisoners under Act 18 and 505 B—especially Act 18,” he said, without providing details of the laws.
Bo Kyi said that the number also includes civilians who were arrested in northern Burma’s Kachin state for their alleged connection to rebels seeking greater autonomy for their ethnic group.
AAPP’s joint-secretary has been in Burma along with other senior members of the organization since January to meet with government officials and activists in an effort to determine the number of political prisoners still held behind bars.
The AAPP plans to hold further talks with government officials to ensure the rights of prisoners are guaranteed after their release from jail, including the right to access education, vocational training, and employment.
The Irrawaddy online newspaper reported that the AAPP, the 88 Generation Student democracy group, and another group Former Political Prisoners have been invited to join the new government committee.
Burma has drawn condemnation from rights groups for imprisoning some 2,000 political opponents, dissidents, and journalists during decades of harsh military junta rule.
The government freed more than 400 prisoners in November last year as a gesture of “goodwill” ahead of an historic visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, but the amnesty drew criticism from rights groups and dissidents who said no political prisoners were among those released.
Authorities had also released more than 80 political detainees among more than 500 prisoners in September 2012 ahead of Thein Sein’s trip to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Additional political prisoners were released in amnesties in July last year and in May 2011.
Rights groups have accused Thein Sein’s government of using dissidents still behind bars as leverage in international relations.
Reported by Thuza for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.