Lawyers, doctors and students have put their names to a joint letter destined for President Thein Sein in which they complain that their hopes for a rebirth of their careers have been dashed as a result of time spent in prison.
Around 25 signatures will feature on the letter, which is also headed for the government-backed National Human Rights Commission. All have spent time in jail on politically-motivated charges. For the students this has meant they are forbidden from studying again, while the doctors’ and lawyers’ licenses have been revoked.
Among them is Aung Thein, the former lawyer of opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi. In May 2009, Aung Thein was preparing to defend the Nobel Laureate in a trial in which she was accused of sheltering US citizen John Yettaw, when he was dismissed.
A top judge in Burma’s Supreme Court had ruled that Aung Thein’s four-month spell in prison on charges of violating lawyer ethics made him unfit for the posting, and he was forbidden from entering the Insein jailhouse court where Suu Kyi was being tried.
Of the letter, Aung Thein appeared less than hopeful that it would trigger a revision of the laws banning former prisoners from working again, but that was not the only intention.
“It’s not exactly because we believe it will work, but we want to find out how much a body [National Human Rights Commission] that was created by the constitution is able do,” he said in a press conference to announce the letter yesterday.
Also putting his name to the letter is Robert San Aung, a lawyer and active member of the pro-democracy movement, who was first arrested in 1997 and spent seven years in prison for his political activities.
The 25 become the latest in a line of former political prisoners who have complained of the ramifications of their time spent in jail. Aung Than Htun spent three and a half years of a five-year sentence in Irrawaddy division’s Myaungmya prison for his work with the opposition National League for Democracy, before he was released in he October amnesty.
In a letter to the NHRC last month, he detailed the regular abuse he suffered at the hands of prison authorities, who beat inmates with batons on a regular basis.
The issue of the wholesale release of political prisoners in Burma remains the key litmus test for the new government – around 220 of the more than 6,300 inmates released in the amnesty were political prisoners, leaving some 1,700 behind bars.
Despite the NHRC making a rare reference to the presence of “prisoners of conscience” in Burmese jails, the government still denies that anyone is in prison on political charges: Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin said last month that only “common criminals” are jailed.
Critics have also questioned the legitimacy of the NHRC, whose 15-member body includes former ministers and which has said it will only focus on new complaints of human rights abuses, and not the hundreds stagnating in the country’s woeful judicial system.