Human rights groups say hundreds of Burmese political prisoners remain incarcerated, despite an amnesty in January, when about 600 of the most prominent activists were released.
“We have been monitoring the political prisoner situation for over 10 years and believe around 800 political prisoners still remain behind bars,” Ko Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), told IRIN.
Run by former political prisoners, the Thailand-based AAPPB has for the past decade been advocating for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar, as well as recording the number of people imprisoned for political activities.
According to Elaine Pearson from Human Rights Watch (HRW), it is difficult to assess the conditions and numbers of political prisoners because independent monitors are prohibited from visiting prisons in Myanmar.
“Human Rights Watch believes that hundreds of political prisoners remain behind bars in Burma. It’s difficult to be more precise at this point, given the lack of independent access to Burma’s 42 prisons across the country,” Pearson said.
“There’s a need for an independent international monitoring mechanism to work through the various lists, and publicly account for each and every listed prisoner.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross halted visits to Burmese prisons in 2006, after the authorities demanded staff members be accompanied by a government representative, preventing the ICRC from fulfilling its independent, impartial mandate.
At the time, inmates reported a lack of access to healthcare, as well as torture, psychological abuse and denial of family visits.
Political prisoners have been sentenced to up to 65 years in prison, often being tried in prison or military courts, and without legal representation, while conditions of detention are appalling and arguably qualify as cruel, inhuman and degrading, amounting to torture, according to a 2010 AAPPB report.
They are often activists with different agendas, and include members of the political opposition, ethnic groups, labour activists and human rights defenders, the report said.
Since then, AAPPB claims that although conditions have not improved, prisoners are allowed reading materials.
Myanmar’s newly elected government denies there are any political prisoners.
On a recent trip to Singapore, President Thein Sein maintained the country did not have any political prisoners but only those imprisoned on criminal charges.
“We punished them because they violated the law,” he said. “There are a lot of people in prison for breaking the law, so if we apply the term [‘prisoner of conscience’] to just one group, then it will be unfair on the others.”
However, according to AAPPB, many of the political prisoners who remain have been imprisoned on trumped-up criminal charges and are therefore not considered to be political prisoners by the state.
“The Burmese government has often tortured political activists into giving false confessions,” says Ko Bo Kyi. “As a result there are many political prisoners who remain in prison for things they have not done.”
Pwa Gyi, a media activist, who fled to the Thai border town of Mae Sot, waits for the release of his father who he believes was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. His father, Kyaw Kyaw, is a politician for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and was voted into Parliament in the 1990 elections.
According to Pwa Gyi, in 2003 when the Nobel Peace laureate came to his township, his father arranged for the car to drive her around. However, like many cars in Myanmar at the time, it was not properly licensed and as a result the authorities charged him – although Pwa Gyi believes the main motive was his politics.
“In Myanmar everything is illegal, and there is no law and order. Anyone can be imprisoned for their beliefs,” Pwa Gyi maintained.
“I am very sad that my father has not been released, he has done nothing wrong, and we really thought he would be released in the amnesty. We are now very worried about his health due to his age and the high temperatures in his prison.”
Khint Cho Myint, another activist, waits for the release of her friend Thant Zaw who was on trial with her in 1989. Thant Zaw remains in prison, having been charged with setting off a bomb at a petroleum factory.
He is now serving a 30-year sentence for charges that Khint Cho Myint claims were false, due to his political activities.
“It is not right he should still be in prison,” Khint Cho Myint said at the AAPPB office in Mae Sot. “It makes me very sad that most of our colleagues have been released but he remains behind bars.”