AAPP calls to bridge the gap on political prisoner numbers

08 Nov 2011

In order for the deep divide on political prisoner numbers to be reconciled, it has become increasingly urgent for there to be a consensus on the number of political prisoners in Burma. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – Burma (AAPP) fully supports recent statements by Tomas Ojea Quintana, Special Rapporteur on human rights situation on Burma, that the International Committee of the Red Cross should be allowed independent and regular access into Burma’s prisons with the aim of investigating the political status of each prisoner in Burma.

AAPP similarly urges a transparent investigation into the political prisoner status of each prisoner by an independent international body, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations. Before this can happen, AAPP suggests the setting up of a joint committee to determine criteria of a political offense. In light of the recent release and amid talks that more are to be released in the near future, it is imperative that an agreement is reached on the number and identity of each political prisoner before any more releases occur.

Many in the international community warmly received the Burmese government’s release of prisoners on the 12th of October as a positive step towards genuine democratic progress. Of course, AAPP welcomes the freeing of any political prisoner, but maintains the recent release needs to go much further if it is to indicate even a small step towards democracy. Only a few political prisoners who hold a key role in the democracy and human rights movement were included in the release. Revered ethnic leaders, 88 Generation student leaders, elected Members of Parliament, humanitarian workers, and others who have a crucial role to play in the shaping of Burma’s democratic landscape and restoration of human rights continue to languish in prison.

A focal point of frustration is the U Thein Sein regime’s official stance of denial of the existence of political prisoners. Other members of the regime have unofficially used the term “political cases” to say the number of political prisoners is grossly exaggerated, inflated, and erroneous. Most recently, the Presidential Advisor told Swedish radio that there are only about 600 political detainees in Burma, and about 300 have already been released on 12 October. If this is true, then the U Thein Sein regime should have no objection to publicizing their complete prisoner list and providing evidence on the political status of each detainee released.

The yawning gap in the number of political prisoners stems from differences in the definition of a political prisoner between the Burmese regime and the opposition. AAPP defines a political prisoner as anyone who is arrested because of their perceived or real active involvement or supporting role in political movements with peaceful or resistance means. AAPP emphasizes the motivation behind the arrest, rather than the law the detainee has been sentenced under.

Due to the reality of the democracy and reconciliation movement in Burma, AAPP does not use the limiting term “prisoners of conscience”, which refers strictly to individuals who were arrested for peaceful activities. This term, employed by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, significantly diminishes the scale of political prisoners as many have been wrongfully accused of violent crimes such as murder, bomb plots, or terrorist acts. Political activists are often sentenced under non-violent criminal laws under the penal code and would not be considered political prisoners. In addition, those imprisoned because of their role in the armed struggle for liberation should be viewed with the backdrop of violent crimes committed by the state, particularly against ethnic minorities.

Under our criteria for a political prisoner, AAPP has documented that 1,668 political prisoners are in prison. We are currently verifying each of these political prisoners and will publicize the complete political prisoner list once the verification process is complete. We ask the U Thein Sein regime to do the same.

Until now, political prisoners have been released anonymously alongside criminal offenders, without any recognition of their political status. The anonymous release of political prisoners whose statuses are debated makes the task of verifying how many political prisoners were released enormously difficult. Releases that do not recognize the political status of the prisoner undermines the dignity of the political prisoner because they must carry the burden of a criminal record throughout their life, thereby tarnishing their reputation.

AAPP is the only organization dedicated to providing the most reliable data on the political prisoner situation in Burma, however there are significant obstacles that make it extremely difficult to provide exact numbers. A major impediment is the complete lack of public records regarding the arrest and release of any prisoner, criminal or political.

This means that the entirety of our information is based on our home-grown networks that place themselves at great risk to provide AAPP with the data needed to advocate on behalf of political prisoners. The current number of inside networks is not enough to handle all the political prisoners in the 42 documented prisons. For those prisons that do not have a nearby inside network, AAPP relies primarily on updates from family members. However, families often face obstacles to visiting their imprisoned loved ones, making the space between visits wide.

Rather than denouncing the political prisoner lists compiled by other organizations, including AAPP’s, the Burmese regime has a responsibility to both the domestic and international community to publicly disclose their prisoner lists, and provide evidence for each “political case” they have on file.

If the Burmese regime is genuine in their claimed intentions in achieving a democracy and initiating the national reconciliation process, the following steps must be taken:
1. ALL those imprisoned for their perceived or real active involvement or supporting role in political movements with peaceful or resistance means must be officially recognized as political prisoners.
2. The government must publicly announce who it recognizes as political prisoners.
3. The political prisoner list must be publicized.
4. All political prisoners must be released unconditionally and allowed to resume their work, whether political or humanitarian, without fear of harassment.

AAPP is committed to ensuring the recognition and dignity of each political prisoner in Burma. To this end, we suggest all bodies and organizations that have been compiling information on political prisoners, including the ICRC, Ministry of Home Affairs, domestic and exiled groups, to work together in a spirit of mutual respect with the aim of bridging the deep divide on political prisoner numbers.

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)

For more information:
Tate Naing (Secretary):  +66 (0) 81 287 8751
Zaw Tun (EC Member):  +66 (0) 89 952 7340

email: info@aappb.org
Web: http://www.aappb.org

Burma Action Ireland

email: info@burmaactionireland.org web: www.burmaactionireland.org