Burma prisoner amnesty ‘a sick joke’

A one-year reduction in jail terms and the commuting of death sentences in Burma is little more than a “sick joke” for the hundreds of political prisoners serving decades behind bars, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

A message from President Thein Sein read out on state television yesterday said that “Prisoners will get amnesty on humanitarian grounds and through sympathy for their families”, while those on death row will now serve life imprisonment.

It did not say whether the amnesty will cover all of the estimated 200,000 prisoners, among whom are nearly 2,100 political prisoners. These include 225 monks, 12 lawyers, 11 elected MPs, eight doctors and hundreds of activists, as well as 17 journalists for DVB. Some of these are serving sentences of more than 100 years.

Observers have labelled it a ploy by the government to appease international criticism, much of which has focused on its continued attacks on the political opposition.

The New York-based HRW called it a “slap in the face” for UN envoy Vijay Nambiar who left Burma last week after urging the government to release all 2,100 political prisoners.

Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma (AAPPB), echoed the widespread disquiet about what he billed as “a fake amnesty, a mockery”.

“The majority of political prisoners will not get any benefit from the amnesty. It shows that the Thein Sein administration does not have the political will to reform.”

Nambiar said shortly after his visit that “expectations are high that [the new government] will start taking concrete steps soon”, likely a reference to a prisoner amnesty, as well as the initiation of dialogue with the opposition.

The UN envoy received criticism after appearing to praise the government during his meeting last week with Burmese officials, saying that he had seen “encouraging signs” from the Thein Sein administration. He is yet to publicly comment on the latest development.

Bo Kyi warned regional governments against recognising this as a sign of progress, particularly, in light of comments made last week by Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya that political prisoners must be released before Burma is awarded the revolving ASEAN chairmanship.

How the news will be received by the hundreds of political prisoners serving decades in jail remains to be seen. Min Ko Naing, the revered leader of the 1988 uprising who is now serving 65 years in jail recently told visiting relatives that “he did not see any changes with the new administration,” according to Bo Kyi.

“He already said that he does not expect to be released.”

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