On 28 May 2012, a 27-year-old Buddhist Rakhine woman was raped and killed in Burma’s Rakhine State. Police detained three Muslim suspects and a few days later 300 Rakhines beat 10 Muslim bus passengers to death, seemingly in retaliation. They claim that they believed the rapists were on board.
Intensive violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims ensued. It left hundreds dead, injured many more and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
As violence raged and tensions mounted, police in the town of Maungdaw turned to Dr Tun Aung for help. As chairman of the local Islamic Religious Affairs Council he had a lot of respect within the community. They asked him to help calm a crowd gathering at the mosque. According to eyewitness accounts this is exactly what he tried to do.
But Dr Aung is now residing in a cell, sentenced to 11 years in prison for ‘inciting violence’. He tried to stop the bloodshed, but they arrested him anyway - persecuted because of his role as a Muslim community leader.
While his story might seem unbelievable, Dr Tun Aung is not alone. Thousands of people in Burma have been imprisoned for what they believe in, for speaking out or being critical of the government. Since elections in May 2011 many have been released but Dr Tun Aung and many others like him remain behind bars, at risk of being forgotten. They are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately.
At her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in June 2012, Burma's most famous prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi sent a powerful message to the world:
'[M]ay I speak out for our prisoners of conscience. There still remain such prisoners in Burma. It is to be feared that because the best known detainees have been released, the remainder, the unknown ones will be forgotten. Please remember them and do whatever is possible to effect their earliest, unconditional release.'
Aung San Suu Kyi
Across the year, authorities released more than 8,500 prisoners, including hundreds of prisoners of conscience.
July 2012 saw the release of Khun Kawrio Ko Aye Aung and Thant Zaw – all prisoners of conscience we had campaigned for. And then, in September an incredible 514 prisoners were released, including prisoner of conscience Zin Min Aung. In November U Myint Aye was included in a release of over 50 prisoners
Most were granted conditional releases under section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Violating this leaves them open to being put back behind bars for the remainder of their sentence.
We are calling for these conditions to be dropped against all former prisoners of conscience because they should never have been charged in the first place.
On release, Khun Kawrio (pictured) thanked everybody that has supported him:
'Thank you all so much, I will keep working for democracy and human rights development in Burma and in the Kayan region. I hope to meet you all personally some time; I want to send best regards to you all.'
These are welcome steps by the government who urgently need to reduce the country’s prison population. But many others remain behind bars, denied their freedom for standing up for what they believe in. And we won't forget them.
Much needed review
In February 2013 Burma’s government announced that it is setting up a committee to review the cases of political prisoners, some of who are prisoners of conscience. This is a very important step towards justice but we’re pushing for the government to go much further.
We won’t stop fighting until all prisoners of conscience in Burma are free and all political prisoners have been charged with a recognisable offence and given a fair trial, or released.