BURMA: Release of detainees welcome, but questions remain
The Asian Human Rights Commission welcomes the release yesterday of a few dozen political detainees in the latest amnesty announced by the government of Burma, as well as the other initiatives contained in an official news release of 18 November 2002, in particular, those aimed at working closely with international agencies on human rights, including with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Among the detainees freed, the AHRC is especially pleased to hear of the release of U Myint Aye, the founder and chairman of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group, and two of his colleagues, Yan Shwe and Zaw Zaw Aung, who were tortured to confess and sentenced in 2009 to 28 to 33 years in jail for their alleged involvement in a series of bombings. In fact, their imprisonment followed the outspokenness of Myint Aye over the handling of the Cyclone Nargis disaster in 2008, and the AHRC has campaigned for their release since that time. It is also been informed of the release of Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, a lawyer jailed after he returned to Burma, having absconded from a charge of insulting a judge for refusing to instruct his clients not to turn their backs on the court in protest, on whose case it has likewise worked.
The AHRC takes this opportunity to note that many wrongly or unlawfully detained persons are still in Burma's jails. Among those on whose behalf it has issued appeals in this year alone are Ne Lynn Dwe, a former air force officer imprisoned for posting articles online critical of the armed forces; a former army major, Win Naing Kyaw, and two colleagues jailed on the basis of confessions obtained through torture for allegedly revealing state secrets; and, a 75-year-old religious leader, Shin Nyana, who is serving a 20-year sentence for establishing a religious order that rejects Buddhist orthodoxy. The persistent failure to release these persons, and others whom human rights groups have identified as wrongly imprisoned, leads to the first of a series of questions that arise from the latest amnesty: in their case, quite simply, why have they not been freed? The release of these and other detainees ought to be simpler than authorities in Burma make it out to be. Although they claim that they are working through procedures to identify and release detainees, a great many of those who ought not to be in prison are, like Myint Aye and his two co-detainees, well-known, their cases well-documented. No sensible reason exists for the delay in their release when compared, for instance, to those freed in 2011. That they are at last free is a cause for happiness, but for those who remain inside, whose cases are well-known and documented, like Ne Lynn Dwe, Win Naing Zaw and Shin Nyana, today is not a day for celebration but only again for the question, why?
The next question that arises is: what will the government of Burma do to acknowledge and afford redress for the wrongful detention of these released persons? In its news release, the government indicated its willingness to work in accordance with international standards to protect the human rights of citizens. Leaving aside for now the obvious discrepancy between the rights of humans and those of citizens, if indeed the government is serious about this commitment then the freeing of these persons is far from sufficient, for at least two key reasons. First, it is important to note that none of the released persons were acquitted of the offences for which they were wrongly accused and for which they were imprisoned. The amnesty order merely releases them from further punishment. Therefore, if the government of Burma is to fulfil its commitment it must review and quash all the convictions issued against these and other detainees released over the last few years. Second, it must set into motion, in discussion with those international agencies identified in the news release, and others, a series of projects to afford redress, which should include financial compensation; rehabilitation of physical and mental damages caused by torture and imprisonment, and programmes to enable them to get back on their feet, through education and training, and livelihood opportunities lost due to incarceration. The level of redress required should not be underestimated. Some of these persons have suffered shocking levels of abuse, the consequences of which will remain with them for their entire lives. The lasting effects of what has happened to them must not be forgotten, or neglected.
A further pressing question remains; one perhaps lost in all the legitimate enthusiasm of the moment. Although, as noted, the accused have in these cases been released through the waiving of sentences rather than quashing of convictions, it is abundantly obvious to everyone involved that the cases against these and other detainees were fabricated. Some of the "crimes" for which these persons were imprisoned too were fabrications. But others were not. Myint Aye and his peers were imprisoned for allegedly being responsible for bomb blasts that did occur. Phyo Wai Aung, freed earlier this year, was likewise the one person convicted over an attack on a festival that left a number of casualties. The police expended large amounts of energy and time on these fabrications, even going so far as to get an Interpol wanted notice issued against a human rights activist living abroad for his supposed involvement in the bombings. So the question that remains, in light of these releases and what we know about the fictionalization of the cases brought against these detainees is, who in fact planted these bombs? Where in fact are the persons responsible for the crimes for which all of these released detainees were wrongly imprisoned? The question is not at all trivial. It is a question that is no doubt being asked by everyone who lost family members; who was injured or who suffered damage to property as a result of these attacks. If not Myint Aye, if not Phyo Wai Aung, then who did it? And, if the same police responsible for arbitrary detention, torture, fabricated cases; if the same courts responsible for convicting people accused of patently trumped up charges are still the ones who are investigating cases, bringing charges and handing down convictions up to the present, then how are we to say with any confidence that such things might not be done again in the future? How are we to say that they are not being done today, only to people who are too poor, too marginalised, too unknown and friendless to attract the attention that they deserve?