Burma's Political Prisoners and U.S. Policy: In Brief *

By Martin, Michael F. | Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia, July 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Burma's Political Prisoners and U.S. Policy: In Brief *


Martin, Michael F., Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia


Overview

The existence and treatment of political prisoners in Burma (Myanmar)1 has been a central issue in the formulation of U.S. policy toward Burma for more than 25 years. The arrest, detention, prosecution, and imprisonment of Burmese political prisoners-including Aung San Suu Kyi2- frequently were cited as reasons for imposing political and economic sanctions on Burma and the leaders of its ruling military junta. The release of political prisoners was often listed as a necessary condition for the repeal of those sanctions.3 When announcing waivers of existing sanctions, the Obama Administration often cited progress on the release of political prisoners as evidence for why the waiver was warranted.4

During a discussion of the human rights situation in Burma during the 34th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2017, William J. Mozdzierz, Director of the Office of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs within the State Department's Bureau of International Organization Affairs, stated that the U.S. government was "concerned by new political arrests under the current [Burmese] government," and urged "the [Burmese] government to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners, and to drop charges against individuals for taking part in protected political activities."5 What actions, if any, the 115th Congress or the Trump Administration may take with respect to U.S. policy toward Burma may hinge, in part, on the issue of political prisoners in Burma.

Seven years have passed since Burma's ruling military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), transferred power over to a newly reconstituted Union Parliament and President Thein Sein, a retired general and the SPDC's last Prime Minister. In 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed control over the Union Parliament after NLD's landslide victory in the 2015 parliamentary elections.6 Although both the Thein Sein and NLD-led governments periodically pardoned political prisoners, authorities continue to arrest, detain, prosecute, and imprison people for peacefully expressing their political opinions.

One reason that controversy over political imprisonment persists in Burma is the lack of agreement on the definition of "political prisoner." Some in Burma would restrict the definition to "prisoners of conscience"; others prefer a broader definition that would include persons who took up arms against the SPDC and the Burmese military. Efforts to forge an official definition for political prisoners during the Thein Sein government were unsuccessful. So far, the NLD-led government has made little progress on the definition issue.

A second reason the issue of political imprisonment persists in Burma is the existence of many laws-some dating back to the time of British colonial rule-that restrict freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. Various human rights organizations have identified several Burmese laws that violate international standards on these freedoms. Because these laws remain in force, Burmese security personnel can arrest, detain, and prosecute people for their political views. Burma's courts have also shown a willingness to convict people for their political views. During the Thein Sein government, the Union Parliament made some progress on legal reform, but also passed new laws that some observers maintain restrict political expression. Since the NLD took control of the Union Parliament, little progress has been made on repealing or revising Burma's questionable laws.

A third reason the issue of political imprisonment persists in Burma has to do with who holds administrative authority over Burma's criminal cases. All security forces in Burma-including the military (or Tatmadaw), the Myanmar Police Force (MPF), the Border Guard Police, and local militias- directly or indirectly report to the Tatmadaw's Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and not to President Win Myint or the Union Parliament. …

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