CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Jan 18, 2012 (IPS) - The release of 651 prisoners, a process which started this month, is being seen as a victory for activists and families who have had to contend with Burma’s notorious prison system.
But, while state media reported, ahead of the first releases on Jan. 13, that the prisoners were being freed to allow them to participate in ‘nation building’, there was no word on conditions set for their release.
At least 300 of those ordered released are political prisoners granted amnesty by the government and include such high-profile figures as the Shan ethnic leader Khun Tun Oo, journalist Zaw Thet Htwe and U Gambira, leader of the All-Burma Monk’s Alliance.
Geraldine May, who heads the Free Burma VJ (video journalists) campaign, told IPS that her work will not be complete until there is substantive proof that the government will allow the freed prisoners to participate in public life and in the upcoming elections without interference.
“The campaign can’t end now. We need to make sure they’re safe and help them in reintegrating their lives,” May explained. She said “conditions” have been set on freed reporters, such as in the case of video journalist Sithu Zeya who must serve out his full 18-year sentence if caught committing “any crimes in the future.”
Zeya reported for the Thailand-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a leading Burmese exile media organisation responsible for many of the gripping images and videos that were transmitted to the world during the ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007.
In all 13 journalists associated with the DVB, incarcerated for breaching draconian media laws while covering the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis in 2008, are due to be released as part of the amnesty.
Supported by the France-based Reporters Without Borders, DVB launched Free Burma VJ in May 2011, demanding immediate release of its journalists who had been arrested while operating as part of an underground network inside Burma.
Hla Hla Win, 27, one of five reporters named by the campaign and arrested under the infamous electronics media act, that prohibits ownership and usage of video equipment, was among the first to walk free on the morning of Jan. 13 with her 27-year prison sentence cut short by presidential pardon.
While the last prisoner release in October 2011 was granted under article 201(b) of the constitution that allows amnesties with the recommendation of the National Defence and Security Council headed by the president, the latest round was authorised under article 401 which does not require the permission of the council.
While such a release might indicate a loosening of the council’s grip on matters of national importance, it could also mean that the releases are ‘suspensions’ that could later be reversed.
Activists point to discrepancies in the estimated number of political prisoners, and international human rights groups such as Amnesty International (AI) have, for many years, called on the government to form a United Nations-led panel to define terms to compare different lists.
“This would be toward not only finding common ground - or perhaps identifying significant differences - but also ensuring that no political prisoner is forgotten by the stroke of a pen,” explains Benjamin Zawacki, AI’s lead researcher on Burma.
The number of political prisoners remains a matter of controversy due to lack of access to information and the justice system for decades.
While the Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners alleges that 1,260 political prisoners remain behind bars, the country’s opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD) has a more modest estimate of 300. Officially, the government denies the existence of political prisoners, classifying all people in jail as criminals.
But, even the staunchest opposition groups recognise that the present round of releases will have far- reaching implications and shows that the new administration is more willing to reconcile with opposition groups.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s best-known opposition leader who was under house arrest for 14 consecutive years, herself welcomed the release as “a positive sign.” She has announced plans to contest a seat in parliament in the by-elections scheduled for Apr. 1.
The profiles of the released prisoners also suggest willingness by the government to forge better relationships on a domestic level and internationally.
“Many released this time can be considered leaders in one way or another - leaders of the 88 Generation group, of the Saffron Revolution, of the Shan NLD,” Zawacki said.
The international community has responded with positive endorsement of the latest moves.
Governments that have traditionally supported sanctions against the military regime and divestment in Burma have begun opening ties in response to reform-minded changes that have taken place over 2011.
While U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton promised “to meet action with action” during a press conference on Jan. 13, Norway has lifted its embargoes on Burma with the aim of encouraging private companies to invest in Burma.
Views on sanctions are mixed among human rights groups. AI has no official stance on sanctions, while exile groups such as the Burma Partnership say sanctions maintain pressure on the government to move towards democracy, universal human rights and unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners.
Burma, often referred to as a closed country and ranked low in the press freedom indices, has experienced significant reform in the area of free speech over the past year.
The publishing of editorials by Suu Kyi, lifting of bans on international news organisation and exiled media, including DVB, largely uninterrupted protests opposing controversial hydropower projects and the latest prisoner release are important conciliatory steps for a country long captive to antiquated and oppressive laws.
However, human rights advocates continue to press for the release of all remaining political prisoners. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has called upon the Burmese government to allow international monitors to ascertain the whereabouts and numbers of political prisoners.