The Burmese government on Friday released another 69 political prisoners, including prominent anti-mine activist Naw Ohn Hla, marking the country’s latest efforts to appease western governments.
Many of the detainees are ethnic minorities, including Shan, Kachin and Lahu, and have links to Burma’s armed rebel factions, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B).
Another 25 of the prisoners were released from prisons across Arakan state, including 10 activists arrested for staging protests against the China-backed Shwe Gas Project in Kyaukphyu.
Eight Arakan residents, sentenced for protesting against the resettlement of displaced Rohingya in the western state, were also released. All of them had been jailed under Article 18 of Burma’s peaceful assembly law, which requires residents to obtain authorisation before staging a demonstration.
However, neither Kyaw Hla Aung nor Dr Tun Aung, who have spent months in jail for their work promoting the rights of Muslim Rohingyas in Arakan state, were on the list.
The most high-profile detainee was Naw Ohn Hla, a veteran campaigner jailed in August for leading protests against the controversial Latpadaung copper mine in central Burma. She has previously spent two years in jail under the former junta regime for her pro-democracy activities.
“This is the second time I have been granted an amnesty. The first time was in 2011 following my arrest in 2009, and now this is the second time,” she told DVB on Friday.
“I believe that I was arrested under accusations blown out of proportion – I didn’t commit any major crime or incite any riots but I was charged with Article 505(b) [of the penal code],” she said, referring to a section dealing with sedition or incitement to unrest.
“The police are incapable of taking any action upon those people who are involved in [large-scale riots]. So I see no reason to be feeling happy or grateful about being released.”
Her arrest prompted outrage from human rights groups, who say it represents a return to junta-era policing.
Burma has received international praise for a series of democratic reforms that has seen thousands of political prisoners released since the nominal end of military rule in 2011. But activists warn that inmates have been released “conditionally”, which means they could be re-arrested at any time if they are deemed to have violated the terms of their bail.
“Naw Ohn Hla should never have been locked up in the first place, and the fact that she has been given a conditional release and is still facing other charges is not good enough. She and others like her should be released unconditionally,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director.
Speaking to DVB on Friday, AAPP-B’s joint-secretary Bo Kyi, who sits on the state-backed political prisoner review board, said the release list had been compiled in partnership with the government.
But he also decried the conditions attached to the amnesty, adding that another 265 people are currently awaiting trial for political offenses. AAPP-B estimates that 60 to 70 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“After this, we will discuss [the matter further] and we will have another meeting [with the government] to discuss for the release of the remaining 60-70 people,” he said.
President Thein Sein has pledged to release all political prisoners in Burma by the end of the year, but activists remain sceptical.
The amnesty falls on the same day that anti-land grabbing activist Htin Kyaw was sentenced to six months in prison under Article 18 in a Rangoon court.
Bo Kyi says they will continue to lobby the government for the release of all current and future political prisoners.
‘We want to [resolve] the 265 cases awaiting trial and for the government not to arrest [anyone else]. That is what we want from the government and we hope that they will agree.”
-Additional reporting by Naw Noreen