Rights groups say Myanmar must free all political prisoners

Rights groups in Myanmar say government falls short of releasing all political inmates, continues to arrest people on political grounds

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Ethnic Kachin activist Patrick Kum Ja Lee, centre, is escorted by police officers during a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, Jan. 22, 2016

A human rights watchdog stated on Monday that Myanmar’s outgoing government has fallen short of releasing all political prisoners, saying it still continues to arrest and charge people on political grounds despite President Thein Sein’s pledge to free all of the country’s political prisoners.

The executive director of the NGO Fortify Rights, Matthew Smith said "President Thein Sein has an opportunity to make this right before his administration ends," in a statement.

"He should release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally," he continued.

Myanmar released 102 people, including 52 political inmates on Friday, bringing the total number of political prisoners freed by President Thein Sein to 1,235 since 2011, when his semi-civilian government took power.

The latest amnesty included a Briton, Philip Blackwood, who was accused of insulting Buddhism, a man from New Zealand who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison along with two Myanmar colleagues for using a psychedelic image of Buddha to promote a party at a Yangon bar.

A rights activist and political prisoner who was just released from Insein Prison, shouts slogans demanding the release of all remaining political prisoners outside the prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Jan. 22, 2016 (AP)

The release came only days after the Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged President Thein Sein to fulfil the promise he gave almost three years ago to release all of the country’s political inmates

The deputy Asia director of HRW Phil Robertson said “Burma’s growing number of political prisoners is the most glaring indictment of President Thein Sein’s human rights record,”

“In the waning days of his administration, the president could leave a positive legacy by immediately and unconditionally freeing all of those unjustly held,” he continued, referring to the government’s expected power transfer to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

The NLD, which has a large number of former political prisoners among its members, won a landslide victory in the November 8 nationwide elections last year, beating the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that took power in 2011 following 49 years of military rule.

Myanmar's incarceration of more than 2,000 journalists, activists and politicians during decades of military rule was a key factor behind the sanctions imposed by Western countries.

There are 409 political prisoners still on trial and 84 others in prisons.

TRTWorld and agencies