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Burma's Ex-Political Prisoners Face Challenges

  • VOA News

As Burma's government promises reform and change, hundreds of political prisoners still languish behind bars, under terrible conditions - victims of the previous government's iron-fisted rule. Even those who have been freed warn that they still face challenges after leaving prison.

In Burma's main city, progress edges forward slowly as economic development and political reform take shape.

But while many foreign businesses have been quick to forget Burma's troubled past, many residents are only now coming to grips with a legacy of fear and control left from decades of harsh military rule.

For ex-political prisoner Jaa Sao, the increase in visitors to his country means more pay. He spent more than six years behind bars for his political activity and was among the first group of prisoners the new government freed last year.

Now, Jaa Sao and a few other ex-prisoners have formed a new business - Golden Harp Taxi. Despite the country's business boom, Jaa Sao's focus is development of another sort.

“I have no interest in the government talking about changing. My interest is in helping my friends who are still in prison, and helping them rebuild their lives after they are released. Now, I cannot afford to help the people still in prison, so I help those who are released.”

Former prisoners face many difficulties in the outside world, such as unemployment and travel restrictions.

In Rangoon, Jaa Sao and many like him meet at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners office to discuss the new challenges in their lives.

Ex-political prison Tu Kyi, who spent more than 10 years behind bars, says government intimidation often continues after release.

"The biggest problem is that people in the surrounding area worry that, if they make friends with an ex-prisoner, they could face interrogation by the authorities. So they are still fearful of the authorities."

Ko Thein of the All Burma Students Democratic Front was part of the most recent release, which coincided with President Obama's historic visit in November.

While Ko Thein is relieved to be free, he holds onto strong bonds that he built while in jail.

“I am happy to be with my family, but I feel bad for those who are left behind in prison. I feel I have a responsibility to try to help them. Because of this responsibility I wish to turn to the media to send out this information.”

The government promised to release all political prisoners by year's end. It's not certain that will happen, but one thing is sure: Jaa Sao and his friends will be ready to help their comrades return to normal life.