Burma rights body urges prisoner release

A government-backed human rights body in Burma has said that Naypyidaw should release “prisoners of conscience” in the country , as rumours of an impending amnesty heat up.

In an apparent open letter to President Thein Sein, published in the state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper today, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) said that “what is referred to as prisoners of conscience” must be freed.

The group “humbly requests the President, as a reflection of his magnanimity, to grant amnesty to those prisoners and release them from the prisons”.

The government has traditionally refused to acknowledged that the nearly 2000 activists, journalists, lawyers and so on that it holds behind bars are anything but “common criminals”. Thein Nyunt, an opposition MP, was prevented from referring them in parliament as political prisoners, but could use the term “prisoners of conscience”.

Supporting claims in the NHRC letter that an amnesty is imminent, domestic news journal The Voice said this morning that a mass release would occur at 2pm today. Six political prisoners were released from Insein Prison on Friday last week, and a man jailed following the 1988 uprising was reportedly freed today from Taungoo Prison.

The NHRC, which is made up of fifteen former ambassadors, government officials and academics, and whose independence from the government has been questioned, however used the proviso that only those “convicted for breach of the existing laws, who do not pose a threat to the stability of state and public tranquility…” should be released.

This may then preclude those with a genuinely adversarial political stance, such as prominent student leader Min Ko Naing, who is serving a 65-year sentence for his role in the September 2007 uprising.

The term “prisoner of conscience” refers only to those prisoners held because of their beliefs, and precludes those who may have committed acts of violence or actively opposed the state.

Bo Kyi, from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma (AAPPB), told DVB that “we disagree with the use of the words ‘prisoners of conscience’ in Burma … because they are freedom fighters, and freedom fighters should be considered political prisoners”.

The NHRC letter, written by Chairman Win Mra, follows hot on the heels of a statement to Norwegian press by parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann that hundreds of prisoners would be released “within days”.

The NHRC was formed after the August visit to Burma of UN special rapporteur for human rights, Tomas Ojea Quintana.

Today’s letter will no doubt be welcomed by expectant families, as has every past amnesty, but the wording of the letter indicates that notions of reconciliation are not yet palatable for the powers that be.

Bo Kyi further noted that former prisoners, such as National Democratic Force head Khin Maung Swe, were not allowed to run as an MP because they were still treated as criminals, begging the question of whether an amnesty equates to a pardon and an acceptance of the rights of individuals to oppose government.

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