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BURMA: Prisoners released and others still detained

February 3, 2012


Urgent Appeal Update: AHRC-UAU-004-2012

3 February 2012

[RE: All previous Urgent Appeals]
BURMA: Prisoners released and others still detained

ISSUES: Administration of justice, arbitrary arrest and detention


Dear friends,

As has been widely reported worldwide, in January the government of Burma released from prison over 600 detainees, around half of who were political prisoners. Many of these people the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) had issued appeals for in the last few years. Although we are very happy to see the release of these detainees, many others remain in custody. In this update we provide some details of released and still detained persons.

On 13 January 2012, the government of Burma announced an amnesty for 641 prisoners, among who were at least 287 political prisoners, according to a list compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), based in Thailand, available for download here.

The AHRC has since been contacting with persons on whose behalf it has issued appeals to confirm releases. Among those released in the January amnesty and also in December from among persons for whom the AHRC has issued appeals previously are:

UP-121-2007: Dr Wint Thu and others
UP-124-2007: Min Ko Naing and others
UAC-048-2008: Ma Thanda
UAC-052-2008: Ko Thiha
UAC-083-2008: Ma Honey Oo & Aung Min Naing
UAC-126-2008: Zarganar
UAC-131-2008: U Ohn Than
UAC-146-2008: Ko Htin Kyaw
UAC-177-2008: Tin Htoo Aung and others
UAC-200-2008: Win Maw
UAC-204-2008: Nay Hpone Latt
UAC-246-2008: Daw Win Mya Mya and others
UAC-248-2008: U Gambira and others
UAC-025-2009: Ne Lin Aung and others
UAC-074-2009: U Tin Min Htut & U Nyi Pu
UAC-110-2009: U Sandadhika
UAC-125-2009: Nyi Nyi Aung and others
UAC-004-2010: Kyaw Zaw Lwin
UAC-011-2010: Dr Wint Thu and others
UAC-023-2010: Ngwe Soe Linn
UAC-038-2010: Maung Nyo & Ma Thanda Htun
UAC-062-2010: Ma Hla Hla Win & Maung Myint Naing
UAC-091-2010: U Gawthita
UAC-108-2010: Than Myint Aung
UAC-013-2011: Sithu Zeya & father
UAC-077-2011: Kaung Myat Hlaing
UAC-083-2011: Nay Myo Zin

We are very happy to hear of the release of these persons and thank you for your support for their cases. We are also happy to note that the government of Burma has acknowledged that those released were "prisoners of conscience", which marks a big change in language from the past, when the government denied the existence of any such prisoners.

However, other persons on whose behalf the AHRC has campaigned remain in prison. They include:

UAU-018-2009: U Myint Aye & others
UAC-112-2010: Phyo Wai Aung
UAC-005-2011: Kyaw Zelin and others
UAC-028-2011: Aye Min Naing
UAC-145-2011: Htun Oo and others
UAC-227-2011: Than Zaw 

All of the people in these six appeals have been accused of involvement in bombings for which the information available suggests that they are innocent. Myint Aye was the founder of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, a local human rights group, and is a human rights defender who was arrested for speaking out over the conditions in the delta following Cyclone Nargis in 2008. He and his fellow accused the police tortured to confess.

Phyo Wai Aung was accused over the 2010 bombing of a traditional New Year festival. Although he has alibis and other evidence to prove his innocence, up to now the case is continuing against him in a closed court in the central prison. The AHRC has set up a special web page on his case:

Currently, human rights defenders in Burma are collecting information and issuing letters and appeals for the release of other prisoners of conscience who are still in detention. One list compiled by rights defenders in Rangoon is available online here: http://www.humanrights.asia/news/urgent-appeals/pdf/AHRC-UAU-004-2012.pdf

The AHRC is also receiving details of persons whom human rights defenders are appealing for their release. In the coming period we will issue appeals on some of these cases.

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.