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Burma’s president has denied that the country’s jails are home to prisoners of conscience, and said there should be no differentiation Burmese who have broken the law, regardless of their charges.
Speaking to reporters on the final day of the ASEAN summit in Bali at the end of last week, Thein Sein said his government “doesn’t agree with” the commonly-held belief that around 1,700 people are serving jail terms because of political activity.
“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.”
Rumours of an impending prisoner amnesty circulated throughout last week, but have yet to materialise. It was thought the government would release thousands of inmates in a gesture of appeasement prior to Thein Sein’s appearance at the ASEAN summit.
As per usual, however, the number of those likely to be included that are labelled political prisoners by rights groups was kept quiet. The government has long refused to acknowledge their presence, although an unnamed official was quoted by AFP on 14 November, a day prior to the rumoured amnesty, as saying that “some prisoners of conscience” would be among those freed.
Critics maintain that laws such as the Electronics Act, which targets journalists and bans the transfer of allegedly subversive material such as independently-filmed television footage over the internet, amounts to a politically-driven charge. Also used to jail hundreds of pro-democracy activists over the years is the Unlawful Associations Act, which renders illegal ties to groups seen as subversive by the government.
On Thursday last week two inmates from Rangoon’s Insein prison, Khine Kyaw Moe and Thaw Htun Naing, who were sentenced under the same law in 2008 for their ties to the exiled All Arakan Students Youth Congress were freed, having finished their jail terms.
The number of political prisoners in Burma has developed into a matter of dispute in recent weeks: the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), which has long been the main point of reference on the subject, puts the figure at around 1,700, but the National League for Democracy (NLD) party released a list last week that documented only 525 jailed dissidents.
Among those who remain behind bars are student leader Min Ko Naing and prominent monk Ashin Gambira, both of whom were jailed for organising activities around the September 2007 uprising. Both were transferred from their cells in remote prisons in Burma’s border regions last week to ones closer to home, in a move that some speculated would presage their release.
An inmate released from Insein prison last week, where Gambira was initially kept before being sent on to Myaungmya prison in Irrawaddy division, told DVB that the 32-year-old had been placed in solitary confinement. His sister, Khin Thu Htay, said she tried to pay a visit on both Thursday and Friday last week after he was moved to Myaungmya but was not allowed to see him.
Shortly before President Thein Sein made the remarks last week, he spoke with UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who is preparing for a visit to Burma, who reportedly urged him to release all political prisoners.
Many western countries say the release of all political prisoners is a key precondition for lifting sanctions on Burma. The government-appointed National Human Rights Commission last month sent a letter to Thein Sein urging him to release “what are referred to as political prisoners”.