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February 07, 2013

New Burma Committee Will Look Into Political Prisoner Release

by VOA News

Burmese President Thein Sein has announced the formation of a committee to look into the release of the hundreds of political prisoners still thought to be behind bars in his country.

The president's office Thursday said the new committee will "scrutinize the remaining political prisoners serving their terms in prisons throughout the country so as to grant them liberty."

Activists say this is the first time the president, who has a reputation as a reformer, has explicitly referred to prisoners of conscience as "political prisoners."

Since taking power in 2011, President Thein Sein has released hundreds of activists, journalists and others as part of a program the government says is aimed at national reconciliation.

​​But critics have complained that the amnesty program has not gone far enough. They say that about 200 dissidents and other prisoners of conscience remain in jail.

In the statement Thursday, the president's office said the committee first will determine who is a prisoner of conscience, and then will come up with a framework for releasing them.

It said the committee likely will be chaired by Union Minister U Soe Thane and made up of representatives from various government ministries, civil societies and some political parties.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a leading Burmese exile group, tells VOA it has accepted a government offer to take part in the committee.

AAPP Chief of Office Aung Myo Thein calls the announcement an "important first step" toward releasing all of Burma's political prisoners. He says he believes his organization has a willing partner in the Burmese government.

"The AAPP welcomes this process," said Aung. "[The government] invited the AAPP to be involved in this committee. The AAPP has agreed that one representative will participate."

The AAPP estimates there are at least 240 political prisoners still jailed in Burma.

Soe Aung, who works for the Thailand-based Forum for Democracy in Burma, also welcomes the move. He says it is important that the committee come up with an accurate list of political prisoners as soon as possible.

"This should be done sooner rather than later," he said. "(But) it should be welcomed if the president mentioned in his statement that they are political prisoners, because they have been denying this fact for so long."

Others remain skeptical. Mark Farmaner of the rights group Burma Campaign UK tells VOA that in order to have credibility, the committee must have the involvement of independent, international experts.

"It's a government-controlled committee with government people on it, chaired by someone very close to the president, so its independence will be in doubt if there's not involvement of the international community's expertise," Farmaner said.

Farmaner says there also is an issue of how prisoners, many of whom were tortured and have serious health problems, are treated once they are freed.

"So far, most of the political prisoners that have been released have been released only conditionally," he said. "There's been no apology, no acceptance that they never should have been jailed in the first place. There's no compensation at all for them."

He says some dissidents who have criticized the government after gaining their freedom have been re-arrested, harassed or had their movements restricted.  

"The repressive laws that put these people in jail in the first place are all still on the books. And you've got more people being jailed now, even under new laws being brought in to supposedly give people more rights," Farmaner said.