Rights groups working to free political prisoners in Myanmar have called on the government and others in the country to arrive at an agreed definition of the term, saying that vague laws have led to the jailing of hundreds engaged only in peaceful protest, slowing Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Presidential Office spokesperson Zaw Htay raised eyebrows when he told reporters at a press conference in Naypyidaw on Jan. 8 that many of those now considered political prisoners in Myanmar were jailed not for political offenses, but for “breaking the country’s laws.”
“Someone should be considered a political prisoner only if they are arrested or sentenced to prison for staging a protest or expressing their political opinions in legal ways,” Zaw Htay said in reply to a question from RFA. “This definition does not apply to anyone who is arrested for breaking an existing law,” he said.
Critics called his remarks disappointing and unbecoming of a ruling party that fought Myanmar’s military dictatorship for decades and has numerous ex-political prisoners in its ranks, beginning with leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Disputes over who is and who is not a political prisoner in Myanmar will be solved only if a more comprehensive definition of the term can be established, Take Naing—secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners ((AAPP-Burma)—said in a Jan. 9 statement.
“There are even several former political prisoners in our ruling government and in the parliament, including the State Counselor [Aung San Suu Kyi]. That’s why we are demanding the release of an official definition of ‘political prisoners,’” Take Naing said.
“As long as there is no official definition [of this term], there will be disputes, since many different organizations have their own definitions, while the government sticks to its own,” he said.
Tun Kyi from the Former Political Prisoners Society said the definition presented by Zaw Htay on Friday was incomplete, calling it an attempt to mask the true numbers of political prisoners now held by Myanmar’s ruling government.
“Successive governments [in Myanmar] have distorted the definition of political prisoners and denied that they existed, but they existed before and now under the ruling government as well,” he said. “Now, a spokesperson has implied at a national press conference that we don’t have any now, and this is not acceptable.”
“Moreover, our own definition of political prisoners is not based on the expression of opinions alone. In our work, we rely on more inclusive definitions that comply with international standards and designations,” he said.
Hundreds are still held
Myanmar national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent a total of 15 years over a 21-year period under house arrest and several months in Yangon’s feared Insein Prison, where some of her own government’s critics now languish, has publicly stated that even one political prisoner in the country is too many.
But the 75-year-old Nobel laureate finished her term with about 584 political prisoners in various stages of incarceration or prosecution in Myanmar, with 36 serving prison sentences, 193 held in detention while waiting to be tried, and 355 out on bail while awaiting trial, AAP-Burma says.
Critics point to two laws—Section 505(a) of the Penal Code and Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law—that are now frequently used to jail students, performers, Facebook users, and other peaceful critics of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and especially of Myanmar’s powerful military.
“In the past, the government used many laws and charges as excuses to arrest political prisoners,” one former political prisoner told RFA, adding that he had once served on a commission set up under the former government of Myanmar’s President Thein Sein to review the status of political prisoners jailed by the country’s previous military regime.
“We had records of all those arrests and campaigned for [those prisoners’] release while I served on the review committee for remaining political prisoners,” he said. “We also secured the release of many ethnic minority villagers who had been arrested for associating with insurgency groups by designating them, too, as political prisoners.”
“Zaw Htay’s comments are disappointing if they represent the government’s views,” he said.
Spokesperson for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party Myo Nyunt seconded the rights groups’ call for a better definition of political prisoner, however, saying that the question of designating prisoners as political offenders has become “more and more complicated these days.”
“There have been many incidents that do not fit the existing definitions, and that’s why I think it will be more appropriate to have a conclusive discussion on this issue so that we can have an official definition of what a political prisoner really is,” he said.
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