Activists have accused the government of playing political games after more than 20 prisoners were released ahead of Thein Sein’s trip to the White House next week.
According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP-B), 23 prisoners were released on Friday, 19 of which were classified as political prisoners by the organisation.
“This was the most predictable event of the week – another major foreign trip announced by Thein Sein, so release another batch of prisoners,” said Phil Robertson, deputy-Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“But what people are forgetting is these political prisoners should never have been behind bars in the first place, and at the rate the government is parceling them out, it’s going to be years before they are all let go.”
Activists also questioned if the verification committee set up by the government in February has been effectively utilised.
“Of course the release of these political prisoners is welcome, but when Obama meets Thein Sein next week he should be asking why there are still hundreds of political prisoners two years after the reform process began,” said Mark Farmaner.
“These releases raise questions about how seriously Thein Sein is taking the verification committee for political prisoners. He still appears to be acting in a top down manner rather than following recommendations from the committee.”
According to AAPP-B, committee members have complained that there has been no transparent input or dialogue before or after the release of political prisoners.
Prisoner release lists are compiled in secret by the Prison Department or President’s Office and then passed onto the committee to be endorsed.
“U Aung Thein and U Soe Thane are eager to credit prisoner releases to the work of the verification committee, when in fact the releases are not supported by all members and not all members are included in any meaningful way in the release process,” said the AAPP-B’s Aung Myo Thein.
Government spokesperson Zaw Htay, who tweets under the name Hmuu Zaw, fired back at critics on his twitter account on Friday and rebuffed the idea that prisoners were being used as political pawns by Thein Sein’s government.
“[The] President doesn’t use political prisoners as tools, his strong determination is all inclusive political process. That’s all,” said Hmuu Zaw on his Twitter account.
Among the prisoners pardoned on Friday was Nay Myo Zin, who was controversially re-arrested last week after being freed in January 2012.
Political prisoners are pardoned under the penal code’s article-401, which allows for their original sentence to be re-imposed by authorities arbitrarily often under the pretense of violating the terms of bail.
During an interview with DVB, Sai Thiha, who was freed from Taungoo Prison during today’s amnesty, said his release was unconditional.
“I was released under the Article 401(1) of the Penal Code and it was unconditional,” said Sai Thiha.
“Previously, inmates had to sign an agreement acknowledging they will have to serve the remaining terms if convicted again of other crimes but apparently we are not entitled to that condition.”
According to the AAPP-B, 183 political prisoners are still incarcerated in Burma, along with more than 70 individuals who are facing trial for protesting and 50 Kachin civilians who were arrested during the military’s ongoing offensive against the Kachin Independence Army.
-Naw Noreen contributed additional reporting.