The armed All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, formed in the wake of a mass uprising in 1988, says 30 of its members remain behind bars in Burma despite a far-reaching amnesty of political prisoners last week.
The group says 13 detainees that were jailed in connection with their ties to the ABSDF, which at its peak had some 10,000 troops, were freed in the 13 January release. Some of those who remain have been in prison since the early 1990s, and are serving sentences of more than 60 years.
“It’s important to release all prisoners of conscience to create a political environment inclusive for all to take part in the reform programme and democratic transition,” said deputy chairman Myo Win.
But since the amnesty, debate has taken place on who qualifies as a prisoner of conscience and political prisoner. Among those released last Friday were former military intelligence, customs and government officials under former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who had been jailed on corruption charges and were therefore not classed by some watchdogs as political prisoners. But given that corruption is endemic throughout the government, some consider the charges on Khin Nyunt’s men as politically-motivated.
For the ABSDF, numbers of their personnel were jailed on weapons and explosives charges. The opposition National League for Democracy does not consider those jailed on charges of causing or intending to cause violence ‘prisoners of conscience’.
The ABSDF took to the jungles of Karen state following the 1988 student-led uprising and fought a lengthy battle against the Burmese army. A split in the early 1990s presaged its decline, but last year the group announced it would fight alongside two Karen forces, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), against the government.
It has been linked with the Karen struggle ever since its formation in 1988, when thousands of students fled to the jungle and were sheltered by the KNLA.
Myo Win said that government officials had approached the ABSDF on 10 January to negotiate a ceasefire. “We see their proposal as a positive approach and are planning to respond to it positively,” he said.
The government secured a tentative ceasefire with the KNLA on Thursday last week, the first time the two sides have reached an agreement in more than six decades of fighting.
Despite its opposition to the Burmese junta, the US until recently had classified the ABSDF as a terrorist group, despite the US having granted asylum to some of its members in the 1990s. It was removed from the list in January last year.