Fears Burmese political prisoners will be forgotten | Connect Asia

Fears Burmese political prisoners will be forgotten

Fears Burmese political prisoners will be forgotten

Updated 15 May 2012, 14:56 AEST

Despite the recent reforms in Burma, up to 500 prisoners remain in jail for political reasons.

The release of political prisoners has been a key demand from the international community ahead of the easing of sanctions.

Yet, while many still languish in jail, Australia and the United States have eased sanctions and the European Union has suspended them

That's led to fears about the fate of those left in prison.

Correspondent: Zoe Daniel

Speakers: Nay Chi, sister of political prisoner; Koko Hlaing, chief advisor to the Burmese president; U Thaung Sein, father of political prisoner

ZOE DANIEL: It's been a long wait for Nay Chi. Her brother, the eldest in the family and the primary breadwinner, was taken away by police in 2009.

(Nay Chi speaking)

'He's the eldest in the family and I feel so sad about what's happened to him. We have no one to rely on since this happened to us,' she tells me.

Like many arrested for political offences, Nay Chi's brother was taken away in the dead of night, accused of terrorism for allegedly rigging an explosive device, he was tried in a closed court and jailed.

(Nay Chi speaking)

'We don't know where he was taken. We don't hear any news from him and we don't know where to trace him,' she says.

Aye Min Phyo apparently admitted to the charge, but forced confessions are common among those arrested for political offences in Burma. Evidence is often fabricated.

Nay Chi doesn't believe her brother is guilty and when the government began releasing prisoners as part of the reform process, she expected him to come home. Others jailed with him for the same offence walked free, but her brother didn't.

The Burmese government mostly denies that it's jailed people for their political beliefs, but, at its worst, human rights organisations estimate it was holding as many as 2000 political prisoners.

When the reform process began, the international community demanded that the government release them as a symbol of its sincerity and, to a degree, it complied. All high-profile prisoners have now been freed.

The government says those that haven't may not be prisoners of conscience but criminals.

Koko Hlaing, chief advisor to the Burmese president.

KOKO HLAING: There may be some people from the political background in the prisons so there may be considerations from the authorities for the releasings of some prisoners but…

ZOE DANIEL: Are you holding them deliberately as a bargaining chip?

KOKO HLAING: No, no, no.

ZOE DANIEL: Are you keeping them in the prison on purpose?

KOKO HLAING: Actually I don't think so. They are, they are not used as political bargaining chips, but actually we have very difficult to verify who is the political prisoner, who is the terrorist, who has the connection with international terrorism organisation, like that.

ZOE DANIEL: Among those recently released is Ko Ko Gyi, a member of the famed 88 Generation of Students, who ran mass protests that were violently halted by the military two decades ago. He spent 18 years in jail, before he was released on the 13th of January this year. Now he's advocating for those left behind.

KO KO GYI: We cannot forget all the remaining political prisoners, even only one political prisoner remaining this is the political issue. So that's why we always try to demand unconditionally release all the political prisoners. So that's our intention.

ZOE DANIEL: U Thaung Sein's son was jailed in 1999 and given a sentence of 59 years in prison.

(Thaung Sein speaking)

'We want him to live with us as all parents wish and I'm suffering distress that I cannot describe,' he tells Ko Ko Gyi and I.

Recent mass releases have been devastating for those whose family members have not emerged from the prison gates. And there's no way of knowing when those still inside will be allowed out.

'We are happy to see people being released, but on January 13 me and my wife really suffered and collapsed because of this,' Thaung Sein says.

'But we are trying to be strong and also my son said, "Dad I also would like to be with you but I believe what I did was right."'

Over the years thousands of people have been arrested and jailed in Burma during the struggle for democracy. As progress finally takes hold, their families won't forget those who are still in jail for what they have done. They're asking that the world remembers them too.

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