YANGON, Myanmar – While the West lauds Myanmar for its steps towards democracy and starts to roll back sanctions, hundreds of political prisoners languishing in prison are still waiting to hear their fate.
Their families hope they will not become the forgotten victims of decades of authoritarian rule in the rush to reward the new quasi-civilian government for its sweeping political reforms.
Freedom has not yet come for Aye Aung, who was arrested in 1998 and sentenced to 59 years in jail on charges including violating the emergency act as well as illegally printing and distributing leaflets.
His sentence has since been reduced to 29 years, but he was not among those to walk free in a major prisoner amnesty in January, to the dismay of his elderly parents.
“We truly expected his release,” his father Thaung Sein told AFP at his Yangon home, where a photo of a laughing Aye Aung playing a guitar hangs alongside another of him receiving an essay prize from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“It was really painful. His mother almost collapsed when she heard, and she wept. As you know, so many people were released in the January amnesty. They didn’t give any reason for not including him. My son also said he had no idea why he was not released yet, the 60-year-old said.
“I felt so sad,” added his mother San Myint, her eyes filling with tears.
‘Prisoner of conscience’
Amnesty International considers Aye Aung, now 36, to be a “prisoner of conscience” who was detained because of peaceful activities such as distributing leaflets and organising student demonstrations.
His parents last visited him in March at Kalay prison in northwest Sagaing Division.
“He has hemorrhoids and a gastric problem. We had to buy medicines for him. Because it is a malaria area, he sometimes feels sick,” his father said.
According to Burma Campaign UK, after his arrest Aye Aung was detained for more than four months for interrogation during which he was “tortured brutally”.
Myanmar said it freed more than 300 political prisoners in an amnesty in January, a move which prompted the United States to pledge it would restore full diplomatic ties.
About 200 others were let out in October 2011, and estimates of the number still behind bars vary.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says that more than 900 political prisoners remain locked up in Myanmar, while Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party estimates their number at about 330.
The 88 Generation Students Group, a pro-democracy movement whose key members were at the forefront of a 1988 uprising, believes there are still more than 600 political detainees, said one of their leaders.
“We have asked the home affairs ministry to release the remaining political prisoners,” Thet Zaw, who was released from prison in January, told AFP.
He said even those who were accused of contact with armed rebel groups or linked to bombings should be freed because their acts were politically related.
“So we will also ask for their release as soon as possible for national reconciliation,” Thet Zaw added.
Myanmar, which languished for decades under a repressive junta, has announced a series of reforms since a controversial 2010 election brought a civilian government to power – albeit one with close links to the military.
Suu Kyi’s return
The regime has welcomed Suu Kyi’s NLD party to return to mainstream politics, leading to her election to parliament for the first time in the April 1 by-elections.
The European Union has responded to what it said were “historic changes” by suspending for one year a wide range of sanctions, although it left intact an arms embargo.
At the same time the West continues to press for the release of remaining political prisoners.
The European Union’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton, who visited Myanmar this week, said she had discussed the issue with President Thein Sein.
“When I asked him about political prisoners, he said they will continue to look further at who should be released and how quickly,” Ashton said in a statement.
Aye Aung’s parents are hopeful that the changes under way in Myanmar will lead to their son’s freedom in the near future.
“The government said it is walking a path to democracy. My son also struggled for democracy. So they now have the same stance. And if they are really implementing democracy, they must release him,” said his mother. – Agence France-Presse