By Joseph Allchin
Burma’s foreign minister has told the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that an amnesty for prisoners is on the cards, but gave no date for a possible release.
Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, Wunna Maung Lwin said that the country’s president would grant the amnesty “at an appropriate time in the near future”.
Among Burma’s prisoner population are nearly 2000 jailed activists, lawyers, doctors and journalists. The government however refuses to acknowledge that it holds political prisoners.
Wunna Maung Lwin said that between 16 May and the end of July the government had released 20,000 prisoners – only a fraction of these were political prisoners.
Rumours have circulated that prominent political prisoners, such as the comedian Zarganar, may be released in the coming weeks.
The amnesty would be part of national “re-consolidation” efforts, said the foreign minister, along with an “olive branch” for “national race” armed groups. He said offers of negotiation had been accepted by some armed groups, but did not mention the ongoing offensives against the Kachin and Shan armies.
Wunna Maung Lwin also took a shot at international sanctions on Burma, claiming that: “It is regrettable that the government’s efforts to improve the livelihood of the people are hampered by the economic sanctions.”
Political prisoners are seen as one of the biggest indicators of a lack of progress in the country since elections last year. Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson, said: “Burma’s foreign minister would be more convincing if the government released all political prisoners and held security forces accountable for the brutal suppression of monks and peaceful protesters exactly four years ago.”
But accepting that the 2000-odd prisoners of conscience are indeed political, or that accountability for the military should be sought, remains very unlikely: the 2008 constitution, which Wunna Maung Lwin contentiously told the summit was “approved by the overwhelming majority of the people,” guarantees that military personnel are immune from prosecution in a civilian court, and a state of emergency can be declared at any time.
The foreign minister added: “The new government pledged that all citizens shall enjoy equal rights in terms of law and is determined to reinforce the judicial power,” despite a recent affirmation in parliament of racial profiling for Arakanese Muslims because they looked like Bangladeshis.
“The government also assured the nation to amend and revoke existing laws and adopt new laws as may deem necessary to implement the necessary provisions of the fundamental rights of citizens,” he continued.
The government is expected to release a new law regarding the rights of labour to organise, but the voting record for amending laws within parliament has been concurrent with the make-up of the houses, which vote overwhelmingly with a conservative, pro-military line.
This has included bills on amending laws such as the Unlawful Association Act, which is used to block potential candidates from holding office or arbitrarily detaining journalists such as 21-year-old DVB reporter, Sithu Zeya, who is serving an 18-year sentence, pending an appeal.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, responding in a press statement released after the foreign minister’s address, said: “Real opportunities for progress exist, but the Government must step up its efforts for reform if it is to bring about an inclusive – and irreversible – transition.” He further added to the chorus calling for the release of political prisoners.