Political prisoner release should prompt continued pressure on Myanmar

Prisoners of conscience Zarganar, Su Su Nway and Zaw Htet Ko Ko have been released in Myanmar’s latest mass prisoner amnesty, after sustained campaigning by human rights organisations including Amnesty International. 

Amnesty International’s membership across the world has been campaigning for the release of the three political prisoners by writing letters, signing petitions and lobbying governments.

“We are celebrating the freedom of people for whom we have campaigned for years,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.  “The now confirmed release of more than 200 political prisoners this month shows that all those letters and petitions can have a real impact in individual cases.”

“But the work is far from over while many more political prisoners remain behind bars.  This amnesty should inspire the international community to keep pressuring Myanmar to release all political prisoners immediately.”

The Myanmar government announced that the latest prisoner amnesty was on humanitarian grounds for the elderly, sick and disabled. 

“This is ironic, considering that political prisoners are routinely placed in remote jails far from hospitals and support networks, and intentionally mistreated and denied medical treatment in order to ruin their health and break their spirits,” said Sam Zarifi.

Zarganar, Su Su Nway and Zaw Htet Ko Ko were no exceptions. 

Zarganar, Myanmar’s best-known comedian, had been serving a 35-year prison sentence in a prison in Kachin state at the time of his release.  Aged 50, he had reportedly been suffering health problems in prison.

He was jailed in 2007 for leading a private donor movement in response to the government’s blocking of foreign aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.  He gave regular interviews to foreign media criticising the government and exposing the unfolding humanitarian crisis, marshalling over 400 volunteers to deliver emergency aid.

In the 2010 documentary ‘This Prison Where I Live’, he described the mistreatment he suffered during a previous detention: “They beat and they kick and sometimes they use some rubber pipe. They use a rubber pipe to beat my back and my belly…Some of my friends in that jail tried to kill themselves…”

Labour rights activist Su Su Nway, 39, had been serving a seven and a half-year sentence for treason and other vaguely defined security offences at the time of her release this October. 

Her acts of political protest even while in prison saw her despatched to a jail near the border with India’s Nagaland, far from her family and medical treatment, despite her heart problem. There was later a reported tuberculosis outbreak in that prison. 

She had been arrested in November 2007 in the wake of the ‘Saffron Revolution’, after putting up an anti-government banner near a hotel where the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar was staying. 

Su Su Nway was the first person in Myanmar to sue the government successfully for subjecting her and her village to forced labour.  The government imprisoned her for eight months in retaliation. 

Upon being released in 2006 from that first imprisonment, she said to the Democratic Voice of Burma, a dissident media outlet based outside the country: “I take my prison uniform with me because I know that I will have to come back to jail until Burma gets democracy.”

Despite being 30 years old at the time of his release, Zaw Htet Ko Ko was also known to be suffering health problems while in prison in Rakhine state, over 660km away from his family in Yangon.

Shortly after his arrest in October 2007, his father told Amnesty International that he feared his son was being tortured in detention.

At the time of his release, Zaw Htet Ko Ko had been serving a 10 year sentence for ‘inciting offences against public tranquility’ due to his involvement in the ‘Saffron Revolution’ protests of 2007. 

As a young member and official photographer of the 88 Generation Students Group, Zaw Htet Ko Ko was of the internet-savvy generation who had embraced new technology to circumvent censorship and communicate with the world outside Myanmar. 

During August and September 2007, the authorities reportedly raided his home up to five times and repeatedly threatened and harassed his family in Yangon.

His father U Aung Myint, a political exile living in the Netherlands, told Amnesty International that he had asked his son in the past if he understood the risks of political activism.

His son replied: “Yes, I’ve considered everything, about dangers. If I don’t do what I’m doing, who will do it for the Burmese people?”