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A prominent student activist, who spent nearly 20 years in jail under the former military junta, slammed the Burmese government on Thursday for revoking the presidential pardon of a former political prisoner earlier this week.
Min Ko Naing, who played a leading role in Burma’s democracy movement, denounced the authorities’ decision to re-arrest the dissident activist, Nay Myo Zin, on Tuesday as “unacceptable”.
Addressing a crowd of locals in Hsipaw town in northern Shan state, he called on the government to release all political prisoners unconditionally.
“This is completely unnecessary when the [government] is bragging on about ‘national reconciliation’,” he said. “The whole nation is supposed to be working together for democracy.”
Most former inmates, who were pardoned in a string of presidential amnesties over the past two years, could be re-arrested at any time if they are deemed to have violated the terms of their bail.
Min Ko Naing, who was sentenced to 65 years in jail in 2007 until his release in January 2012, said that most prisoners are not even fully informed of these terms.
“[We] were only told when we got outside of the prison that we were being released under article-401,” he said, referring to the section of Burma’s penal code, which allows for his original sentence to be re-imposed arbitrarily.
The re-arrest of Nay Myo Zin, who is due to serve six years of his original sentence after being charged with ‘defaming’ the police earlier this year, comes on the same week that the government re-structured its political prisoner review board to include representatives from more political parties.
But activists say the board – which was formed in February with a mandate to identify and release all remaining political prisoners in Burma – has made little progress and lacks both transparency and accountability.
“Even though I am one of the board members, I do not know [what’s going on],” Bo Kyi, from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), told DVB in an interview. “The chairperson of the board [and President’s Office Minister], U Soe Thane does what he likes — I have no idea, there is no consultation.”
The next board meeting is scheduled for Saturday, but Bo Kyi said he did not even know what time it would be called. “We cannot do anything freely or anything of weight. We need to set up a functioning mechanism, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
But he insisted that they would raise the case of Nay Myo Zin at Saturday’s meeting and re-iterate their calls for all political prisoners to be released without strings.
The release of all political prisoners in Burma was one of the key benchmarks listed by the US and EU as prerequisites to the lifting of sanctions. But most western countries have lifted them anyway in an apparent bid to encourage further reform in the country.
“This jailing of Nay Myo Zin shows that the EU was wrong to lift sanctions and talk about ‘remarkable progress’ in Burma,” said Wai Hnin, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK, earlier this week.
According to human rights activists, over 200 political prisoners remain incarcerated in Burma, and many more have been arrested since President Thein Sein took office, especially in ethnic minority areas, including Kachin and Arakan states.
In April, a retired medical doctor and recognised political prisoner, Dr Tun Aung — who was jailed last year for allegedly failing to prevent an outbreak of ethno-religious clashes in western Burma’s Arakan state — had his sentence increased by another six years. It follows a plea by the UK’s Foreign Minister, Hugo Swire, to secure his immediate release.
Rights groups say that EU countries have been deceived by cosmetic reforms in Burma and subsequently lost their bargaining power with the former military dictatorship.
“[The British government’s] new soft approach with the Burmese government is effectively abandoning political prisoners in the country,” said Wai Hnin.