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Rights Groups Urge International Community to Maintain Burma Sanctions

A Myanmar activist puts cutouts of imprisoned Hla Hla Win, a reporter of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, on a wall near Myanmar Embassy during a rally in Bangkok, Thailand, (File September 9, 2011).
A Myanmar activist puts cutouts of imprisoned Hla Hla Win, a reporter of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, on a wall near Myanmar Embassy during a rally in Bangkok, Thailand, (File September 9, 2011).

Key advocates for Burmese political prisoners are calling for the international community to keep economic and trade sanctions in place until Burma’s government releases all political prisoners, including those detained in ethnic areas. United Nations agencies in Burma say an easing of sanctions is crucial to allow funds to support poverty alleviation programs in the country.

The rights monitoring group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, says the international community must maintain pressure on Burma’s government to ensure the release of all political prisoners before economic and trade sanctions are fully lifted.

The secretary of the Thailand-based Association, Bo Kyi, himself a former political prisoner, spoke to foreign journalists in Bangkok.

“First we need from the Burmese regime is to release all political prisoners. Second is to help [achieve] nationwide peace and third, to allow citizens to set up human rights organizations in order to promote and protect human rights. So that is such a mechanism we need now if we receive those things we should consider lifting sanctions,” Kyi said.

Burma’s President Thein Sein has called for a speedy lifting of sanctions after his government freed hundreds of prisoners, allowed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to return to politics and held ceasefire talks with ethnic armed groups.

The most recent release of political prisoners, including key leaders from the 1988 uprising against Burma’s military, came on January 13.

But rights group Amnesty International says many more prisoners are still detained. Amnesty says 647 political prisoners have been freed since last year but 700 to 1,000 others remain in custody.

Burma refuses to acknowledge it is holding any “political prisoners." Rights groups fear that without adequate recognition, some political prisoners may come to be seen as regular convicts and face long prison sentences.

Amnesty International Burma researcher, Benjamin Zawacki, says despite moves toward political reform, the situation remains “very grave” and that the government is using political prisoners as “bargaining chips” as it seeks to get sanctions reduced. “When you consider that many of these people, most of these people, should never have been detained in the first place, it really is quite disturbing that individuals would be used as a bargaining chip,” he said.

But international aid organizations are also looking for an easing of sanctions. The United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) resident representative in Burma, Ashok Nigam, says lifting of sanctions is vital to support much needed development programs.

“They are very important that they be lifted soon because we are still operating, especially UNDP, under restricted mandate which prevents us from actually running a regular UNDP country program. A regular country program focuses a lot more on building capacity and really getting government to take on its responsibilities in these areas. So clearly lifting of these sanctions will be immensely beneficial for us as and when it happens,” Nigam said.

A decision on the lifting of restrictions on the UNDP lies with the 36-member-state executive board that includes the United States, Canada and 12 Western European countries such as Germany and Britain.

In recent weeks, senior U.S. Congressional leaders have given conditional support for the lifting of trade, financial and economic sanctions.

This week foreign ministers from the European Union, which moved to ease some travel restrictions on senior Burmese leaders, are reported to be considering an aid package of nearly $200 million.

The ministers are calling for the unconditional release of all political prisoners “within months” with free and fair by-elections in April when Aung San Suu Kyi is set to run for a parliamentary seat.