Myanmar Film Stars Pledge Assistance to Political Prisoners

myanmar-political-arrest-protest-jan-2014.jpg A protester writes "Stop political arrest" on a placard during a Jan. 5, 2014 protest in Yangon calling for an end to repressive laws and politically related arrests.

Myanmar’s movie stars have pledged support for a foundation providing health care and educational assistance to families of the country’s current and former political prisoners.

The Myitta Thingaha Organization, whose members include some of Myanmar’s biggest film stars, agreed to donate 3 million kyat (U.S. $3,100) to the Myitta Oway Foundation, which was set up by the 88 Generation students group to help family members of the jailed dissidents.

“We donated to the foundation because we agree with its objectives,” popular actor Khant Sithu told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“We are happy to help with the education and health care of [their] families together with the Myitta Oway Foundation,” he said.

There are at least 185 prisoners of conscience languishing in Myanmar’s jails, even though President Thein Sein’s reformist government had pledged to release all political prisoners by the end of 2013.

Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 88 Generation student group, said the Myitta Oway Foundation would use the donation to assist former political prisoners who have yet to finish their education and current political prisoners who require medical care in jail.

“There are some former political prisoners who haven’t finished their education yet … We have agreed to help them with their education,” he told RFA.

“But we have problems trying to help with health care for [the former political prisoners] because some of them need to take expensive medicine and we can’t provide it. We will provide medicine for current political prisoners based on their doctor’s prescriptions.”

Min Ko Naing said that the foundation would also try to support former political prisoners if they require surgeries to alleviate an illness, and that it was considering additional ways to assist with health care needs.

Myitta Oway Foundation founder Ashin Sandadika said the group, which also assists the families of political dissidents who are in dire straits, was established “to honor sacrifices made for the people.”

“[These people] don’t have time to run their own businesses for themselves because they are constantly involved in political work, so their families face difficulties,” he said.

“I believe that those of us who are not involved in politics should help [them with donations] so that they can fully commit themselves to their work.”

Prisoner workshop

The donation pledge follows a meeting between two watchdog groups and government representatives in Yangon this week to determine what constitutes a political prisoner.

The government and political activists have been at odds over the definition of the term.

From Aug. 17-18, more than 100 representatives of nongovernmental organizations and political parties, as well as activists, lawmakers and lawyers, attended a workshop jointly organized by the Former Political Prisoners Society (FPPS) and Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), according to a report by the Irrawaddy online journal.

The report quoted Tun Kyi of the FPPS as saying that the definition of a political prisoner should be clarified because “the government is denying that there are any political prisoners who remain behind bars.”

“So we decided to hold the workshop and invited international organizations like ICTJ [International Center for Transitional Justice] and ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], activists, lawyers and lawmakers to define the definition of political prisoners and to enforce the law on that,” he said.

Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has granted amnesties to more than 1,000 political prisoners since it took power from the former military junta in 2011 and began to enact democratic reforms.

But Tun Kyi told the Irrawaddy that authorities have continued to make politically motivated arrests and prosecutions, using alleged charges to stifle dissent, while purporting to uphold the rule of law.

Tun Kyi said that the definition reached by the workshop states that anyone arrested, charged or sentenced for directly or indirectly supporting movements for freedom, justice, equality, or human rights, or for participating in demonstrations or other forms of dissent against the government, would be considered a political prisoner.

Aung Myo Kyaw, a spokesman for the AAPP, told the Irrawaddy that the definition would be submitted to parliament in order to obtain recognition from the government.

He said that previously, the reformist government mainly considered releasing political prisoners based on the charges for which they were incarcerated, which were generally made under Myanmar’s former military regime, rather than according to a specific definition of what constituted a political prisoner.

“A definition would help to release political prisoners remaining behind bars and to avoid including those who are not political prisoners in amnesties, and to ensure rights and assistance to political prisoners during and after their imprisonment,” Aung Myo Kyaw told the journal.

According to Tun Kyi, by the end of July there were 184 political prisoner—70 who were already convicted and 114 awaiting trial.

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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