Amnesty International yesterday urged Aung San Suu Kyi and her party’s new government to release all political prisoners when they take office next week, saying it is a historic opportunity for Myanmar to break away from the repression of the former junta rule. “Myanmar’s legal framework reads like a textbook of repression, and authorities have in recent years increasingly used it to silence dissent,” Amnesty International Southeast Asia director Champa Patel told reporters. Serious questions remain unanswered about the new government’s power to improve human rights given that the constitution keeps several key institutions under the military’s control, including the ministries of home affairs — which oversees the police — defense and border affairs.
Amnesty’s report, based on interviews with human rights defenders, activists, lawyers, and prisoners of conscience and their families, documents the widespread crackdown on political opponents in the past two years. It said the government has relied on draconian laws and other intimidating tactics to silence dissent. Aung San Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy party to a historic win in the Nov. 8 elections, and is to replace a nominally civilian, military-backed government that has been in power since 2011. Before that, Myanmar was ruled by the military since 1962. During that time, the junta kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for several years, and jailed hundreds of her supporters and other critics. While the government has released more than 1,100 detainees over the years, some remain in jails.
National League for Democracy Legislator Khin San Hlaing, center, arrives ahead of a regular session of the Union Parliament in Naypyitaw yesterday.
Amnesty says it knows of almost 100 political prisoners still behind bars, while hundreds of other activists are in detention or waiting for their trials to end. There was no immediate comment, either from the outgoing government or Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Amnesty called on the new government to immediately release all prisoners of conscience, set up a panel to review all cases and ensure no peaceful activists are imprisoned, and to amend or repeal all laws used to crack down on human rights. The NLD’s willingness to free prisoners of conscience is not in doubt, but it might not be able to do so: The Corrections Department is under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs.
Even after “we have the new government and parliament, they will not have the full authority to manage the country,” Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said. “The constitution says the commander-in-chief is the most powerful person in the country.” The laws themselves have also been applied in ways that add to their severity against dissenters and activists. In one such case, Htin Kyaw is serving 13 years and 10 months for distributing leaflets criticizing the government. He was charged with the same offense separately in all 11 townships where he handed out the leaflets. “It would have been really graceful if [outgoing Burmese] President Thein Sein had released all the political prisoners before the end of his term,” said Robert San Aung, an advocate for political activists on trial.