July 24, 2013: Burma’s President Thein Sein pardoned 73 political prisoners on Tuesday, a government advisor and a human right activist said. Among the released are 29 Shan ethnic rebels and 26 Kachin prisoners of conscience.
“In total, about 70 political prisoners will be released nationwide, including 26 Kachin prisoners,” said Hla Maung Shwe, a special government advisor at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC). He added that 13 detainees were being released from Kachin State’s Myitkyina Prison.
“They were released as part of an amnesty by the president — this was part of his pledge to the international community to release all political prisoners by the end of the year,” Hla Maung Shwe told The Irrawaddy. “This move will be a boost for the peace process.”
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) had previously demanded the release of 31 Kachin political prisoners. The group is currently in ceasefire talks with the central government.
Thet Oo, a spokesman of the Former Political Prisoners group in Rangoon, said 73 prisoners of conscience had been released on Tuesday.
He welcomed the president’s decision, but added, “We will be happy if they release all the people at the same time. We don’t like it that the government releases one group at a time.”
Thet Oo said prisoners had been released from at least six prisons located in Rangoon and in Moulmein, Hinzada, Shwebo, Myin Gyan and Myitkyina townships.
“Most of the released prisoners belonged to armed groups or were accused of belonging to an unlawful group,” he said, adding that one of the released had been accused of being a member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.
The Former Political Prisoners group welcomed six Burmese political prisoners who walked out of the gates of Rangoon’s Insein Prison on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m happy to be free, but I also feel sad because I should have been released much earlier,” said Win Hla, before walking off.
Shan State Army-South Colonel Sai Khan said he had been informed that 29 members of his rebel group were being released on Tuesday.
“We received a list in the past two days, with 29 people who are to be released. We submitted a list requesting the release of 31 people,” he said. “It’s not immediately clear to us how many of them have already been released.”
Thet Oo said that an estimated 92 political prisoners still remain behind bars in Burma.
Hla Maung Shwe, of the MPC, said Lahtaw Brang Shawng, an ethnic Kachin farmer, was among the released.
Lahtaw Brang Shawng was arrested on June 17, 2012, in an internally displaced people’s camp in Myitkyina. He was charged with violating Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly being a member of the KIA. Last Friday, he was sentenced to two years in prison.
Lahtaw Brang Shawng’s family and Kachin human rights activists have long campaigned for his release and his case was seen as an example of the human rights abuses that Kachin civilians face.
The repressive Unlawful Associations Act law is widely used by the government to detain Kachin civilians and combatants during the ethnic conflict in northern Burma. The Asian Human Rights Commission has said the 1908 act allows for accusing people of being “politically dangerous to the state by virtue of their identities.”
Lahtaw Brang Shawng’s lawyer Mar Khar welcomed his client’s released, but added, “I feel very sad about Brang Shawng’s imprisonment. He was tortured during interrogation even though he was just a normal civilian and had no link to the KIA.”
President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has freed thousands of prisoners since taking office in 2011, including several hundred political prisoners, as part of sweeping reforms in Burma’s transition from military rule to democracy.
During a visit to the United Kingdom last week, Thein Sein said his government would release all prisoners of conscience before the year’s end. He also announced that a national peace conference with Burma’s 11 major ethnic rebel groups would be held this month.
Human rights groups have pointed out however, that Burma’s government recently arrested a number of activists for political reasons.
Wai Phyo, secretary of activist group Generation Wave, was detained by police in Pyay Township, Pegu Division, on July 9 on charges related to his group’s 2011 “Free Political Prisoners” poster campaign.
Last Thursday, Bauk Ja, an ethnic Kachin activist and member of the National Democratic Force political party, was arrested by police in Myitkyina, Kachin State, on negligent homicide on charges.
Last year, Bauk Ja helped provide medical treatment in a remote Kachin village, but a local patient later died. A police officer and another villager recently filed a complaint against her in relation to the death. Her party said the charges are politically motivated.
On July 15, on the day of Thein Sein’s speech in London, security forces in Arakan State’s Sittwe Township arrested prominent Rohingya human rights lawyer Kyaw Hla Aung.
The 74-year-old lawyer was one of thousands internally displaced Muslims who are living at a camp near Sittwe following last year’s clashes with Arakanese Buddhist communities. He has spent many years in prison for his activism under Burma’s former military regime.
Last week, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher Amy Smith said that Kyaw Hla Aung “joins scores of other human rights defenders who have recently been arrested, charged, or detained for their involvement in peaceful activities.”