Burma: New government should free all prisoners of conscience and usher in 'new dawn for human rights'

“This could be the start of a new dawn for human rights in Burma, but the task facing Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is huge’ -  Champa Patel

 

  • Nearly 100 prisoners of conscience in Burma

Burma’s new government will take office with a historic opportunity to change course on human rights, but to do so it must break away from the deeply repressive legal framework it inherits, Amnesty International said in a new report out today (Thursday 24 March).

Amnesty is urging Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party (NLD) government to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners of conscience when it takes office next week. Amnesty knows of almost 100 prisoners of conscience behind bars in Burma today, while hundreds of other activists are in detention, or awaiting trial.

A prisoner of conscience is a term coined by Amnesty which refers to someone jailed solely for the peaceful expression of their views. Aung San Suu Kyi was herself, arguably, the world’s most renowned prisoner of conscience kept under house arrest by the ruling Burmese military junta for almost 15 years, until her release in 2010.

Champa Patel, Amnesty’s South East Asia Director, said:

“This could be the start of a new dawn for human rights in Burma, but the task facing Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy is huge – they have to ensure that their actions are not controlled by the repressive laws they will inherit.

“Despite their landslide election win, Burma’s flawed constitution will also ensure that the military still wields considerable power.

“To break the vicious cycle of political arrests, the new government must prioritise reforming the legal code to ensure that speaking out is no longer a crime, and it must release all those imprisoned simply for doing so.”

Two years of intensifying repression

The report documents how the Burmese authorities have engaged in a far-reaching crackdown on opponents in the past two years. They have relied on a range of tactics and draconian laws to silence dissent, some new and some dating back to the years of outright military rule before 2011.

A wide range of people including journalists, students, and labour and land activists have been threatened, harassed and jailed, simply for peacefully speaking their minds. The repression and arrests of activists have continued even since November’s elections.

Using laws to silence dissent

The Burmese authorities have been using the law to bring charges against groups of people participating in a protest, in ways which amount to collective punishment, the report finds. The authorities have also used politically-motivated detention and imprisonment to significantly weaken dissident movements, targeting leaders in particular.

Following the nationwide student protests which started in 2014 and ended with the brutal beating of students by police in Letpadan in March 2015, scores of students and their supporters have been arrested and detained throughout the country. At least 45 of them are still in detention with the most recent arrests taking place just last month.

Phyoe Phyoe Aung is one of the student leaders who organised marches against the repressive ‘National Education Law’ and for the past year has been a prisoner of conscience who Amnesty has campaigned for the release of. Nearly 40,000 Amnesty supporters in the UK have called for her release.

An opportunity for change

Members of the NLD party have made encouraging and welcome promises to make human rights a priority when they take office, and the party has a historic opportunity to do so. But the task it is facing is huge. There are serious questions about the NLD’s ability to change course on human rights, given that Burma’s constitution still puts the military in charge of several key institutions. These include the Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the Police and the general administration of the country.

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