Myanmar: Prisoner committee should not be smokescreen

A Myanmar government committee reconstituted to deal with “prisoners of conscience affairs” should resolve remaining prisoner-of-conscience cases, be inclusive, independent, transparent and designed to tackle growing numbers of politically motivated arrests, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today in a joint open letter to the committee’s new chair.

The 28-member Prisoners of Conscience Affairs Committee formed in January 2015 replaces the 19-member Committee for Scrutinizing the Remaining Prisoners of Conscience formed two years ago on 7 February 2013 by presidential order. The committee’s new chair, General Kyaw Kyaw Tun, is the Deputy Minister for Home Affairs, a ministry under the command of the Myanmar military, that includes the police force, Special Branch, and department of corrections. The nongovernmental Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP-B) was excluded from the new committee, in all likelihood because Bo Gyi – its co-founder – has in the past been critical of the committee’s shortcomings. 

In 2014 the committee met only three times, justifying fears that it would stop functioning as soon as the national and international attention diverted from the issue. 

“This cannot become another toothless committee set up by the government to deflect criticism and create a smokescreen. The stakes are too high: general elections are only months away, and the government’s crackdown on peaceful activists is picking up pace.” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.  “The government’s claims that Myanmar’s jails are free of prisoners of conscience are false. This committee could, however, affect genuine change – but only if it has a broad mandate, adequate resources and operates independently.” 

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have longstanding concerns that old and new laws are being frequently used by the authorities to arrest and imprison peaceful activists and human rights defenders. These include sections of the Penal Code, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, the Emergency Provisions Act and the Official Secret Act. The provisions of these laws are phrased in an excessively broad and vague manner, potentially resulting in both an overreach, and a discriminatory application, of the law. Unless these laws are brought into line with international human rights standards, the detention of individuals solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights will continue in Myanmar. The numbers of politically motivated arrests and people facing charges has markedly increased over the last year.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also deeply concerned over government harassment of former prisoners of conscience who have had limitations placed on their freedom of movement and their access to work, education and employment. 

The organizations called on the new committee chair to renew its commitment to resolve the continuing detention of all prisoners of conscience; discuss the repeal of flawed laws that contribute to arbitrary arrests and unfair charges; ensure the committee is inclusive of prisoner support groups; has unfettered access to prisons and prison documents; meet on a regular basis; and, ensure transparency of its activities.

“Excluding the leading political prisoners’ group from the ostensibly reformed committee is a clear warning that the government isn’t feeling pressure to engage with civil society on a key human rights issue,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Thein Sein’s government should be listening to its critics, not arresting them for exercising their basic rights.”