On December 11, 2013, Burma’s President Thein Sein ordered the release of 41 additional political prisoners in his latest amnesty. Among those freed were human rights defenders Ko Htin Kyaw, leader of the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), a community-based organisation that represents grass-roots communities and struggles against land-grabbing and other human rights violations, and Mr. Moe Thway, leader of the Generation Wave, a network of human rights defenders that campaigns for civil and political rights, including the signature of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by Burma. Mr. Moe Thway was within ten days of completing his full prison term at the time of the presidential pardon.
However, it was reported that Ko Htin Kyaw was re-arrested on the same day on a sedition charge. Another human rights defender, Aye Thein, was also re-arrested on more charges, including one of sedition. Labour activist Aye Thein had been jailed for protesting against the relocation of a street vendors’ market in Mandalay. Meanwhile, recently released human rights defender Naw Ohn Hla, leading member of the Democracy and Peace Women Network, also found herself back behind bars on “religious offences”.
In addition, approximately 40 political prisoners remain behind bars and at least 200 people, including farmers who protested against land confiscation, are awaiting trial. Many are facing charges under the Peaceful Gathering and Demonstration Law, which prescribes up to one year in prison for those who demonstrate without obtaining the authorities’ prior permission.
“The amnesty also failed to address the dire situation of Rohingya in Arakan State as the government failed to release Messrs. Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung, two defenders of the rights of the Rohingyas in Arakan/Rakhine State who remain detained along with hundreds of Rohingya following sectarian violence in 2012”, FIDH President Karim Lahidji deplored. In August and October 2013, various courts in Northern Arakan State sentenced a total of 115 Rohingya to lengthy prison terms for their alleged involvement in last year’s communal unrest.
FIDH Secretary General and Coordinator of Altsean-Burma, Debbie Stothard, described the situation as a “recycling” of political prisoners: “The release and re-arrest of human rights defenders is a traditional tactic of the authorities. As long as repressive laws are maintained, all those released will be under constant threat of being thrown back into jail for their human rights work”, she said.
As with previous releases of political prisoners, the December-11 amnesty was strategically timed to coincide with an important international event. In this instance, it was the opening ceremony of the 27th Southeast Asia Games, which are hosted by Burma.
“We call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ko Htin Kyaw, Aye Thein, Naw Ohn Hla, Tun Aung and Kyaw Hla Aung, as well as all human rights defenders who remain detained. The release and re-arrest tactics is one of dictatorships and not of States in a supposed democratic transition. Such sarcastic games at the detriment of human beings must become the past. There is only way forward to a free society: a commitment to create an environment in which society can flourish in its diversity, and human rights defenders are a torch of freedom protecting the rights”, concluded OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock.