It has been over one year since the government of Burma ordered the release of 6,359 prisoners. Among the thousands were 247 political prisoners, including respected leaders like female labor activist Su Su Nway and famed satirist Zagarnar. It was one of the biggest single releases of political prisoners at that time, and a joyous moment for democracy and human rights in Burma.
In January of this year, more of our freedom fighters were returned to us in a watershed moment in Burma’s history. An unprecedented 336 political prisoners were released, including the iconic poet and activist Min Ko Naing and outspoken dissident monk U Gambira.
Excited campaigners around the world called for the prison gates to open wider. For the first time, we believed that the prisons in Burma would be completely emptied of all political prisoners. Unfortunately this has not been the case. The revolving door in and out of prisons for Burma’s dissidents continues.
The real test to ensuring the prisoner releases lead to meaningful reform is whether the government will stop imprisoning people for speaking their mind or criticizing the government or military. While it is extraordinary that 769 political prisoners have been released since May 2011, the escalating number of arbitrary detentions has given pause to the celebration. Since January 2012, there have been at least 200 politically motivated arrests, with fewer than 60 leading to formal court proceedings. Rarely do political detainees leave detention knowing whether they are being indicted or not. In a manner reminiscent of the previous military junta, the current government is using backwards legislation to persecute people who have ideas that conflict with state interests.
On countless occasions, the people of Burma have demonstrated that they want to free themselves from the grip of the so-called civilian regime. They have bravely taken to the streets in record numbers to condemn the lack of electricity, government-backed land confiscations, despicable labor conditions, and ongoing civil war in Kachin State.
President Obama, the hundreds who remain wrongfully detained need action to secure their freedom, not more lip service. I urge you to privately and publicly pressure the government of Burma to take immediate and sincere steps to release all of the remaining political prisoners. Help the people realize their full spectrum of human rights and finally close Burma’s dark chapter of political prisoners so we can move forward to a brighter, more democratic future.