UN reacts to death of jailed monk

The death last week of an elderly monk serving his twelfth year of a 20-year sentence has prompted a top UN official to call for the release of all political prisoners in Burma.

Ashin Nameinda (also known as U Myo Min) died on 8 December. He had been suffering mouth ulcers and thus was unable to eat, but according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners–Burma (AAPP), was not given adequate treatment.

The 50-year-old had been sentenced for distributing leaflets to encourage protests in September 1999, and becomes the 146th political prisoner to die in detention. Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur for Burma, followed the news of Ashin Nameinda’s death and the release last month of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with calls for the junta to release the remaining 2,200-plus political prisoners in Burma.

“One month after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, I call upon the Government of Myanmar [Burma] to release the remaining prisoners of conscience, currently estimated to be at least 2,202, many of whom are right now suffering serious health problems from the harsh conditions of their detention,” he told AFP.

Around 142 of the imprisoned monks, activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians are in poor health, AAPP claim. Conditions inside Burma’s 44 prisons are notoriously poor, and inmates are regularly required to bribe prison doctors in order to receive treatment. Torture is widespread, particularly for political prisoners.

Despite recent elections that the ruling junta promised would usher in an era of civilian rule, there has been no suggestion that political prisoners will be released.

“A release would be a very strong signal that the new government of Myanmar intends to uphold these fundamental freedoms and would be welcomed by both people inside and outside the country.”

Despite the reverence with which Burma holds its monastic community, monks currently account for 256 of Burma’s 2,202 political prisoners. One monk, U Nanda Vathu, is serving a 71-year sentence, while nearly two dozen of those detained are serving sentences of 20 years or more.

Quintana, who has called for the UN to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma, was denied a visa to visit the country in August. UN chief Ban Ki-moon said shortly after that he was frustrated that the junta had been “unresponsive” to his attempts to trigger dialogue and engagement.

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