By: Michele Penna

In July of 2013, Myanmar‘s President Thein Sein stated that by the end of that year, two years after the election of a nominally civilian government pledged to democratic rule, there would be no prisoners of conscience left in the country’s jails. He was wrong. There are still opponents left in Myanmar’s jails and they are being joined by a growing number of new ones.

To be sure, many have been released. Since 2011, batch after batch of political prisoners have left their cells to go as part of a process of reform and opening up that has also seen restrictions on the press partially lifted. But 109 are now behind bars, with another 464 facing trial on political charges. 

The “Committee for Scrutinizing the Remaining Political Prisoners,” created at Thein Sein’s order in 2013, was replaced in January this year by a brand-new Prisoners of Conscience Affairs Committee – a group which observers immediately judged way more government-friendly than its predecessor. In the past 12 months or so authorities have been busy turning the clock back: not only has the number of prisoners stopped shrinking, it is now on the uptick.

“A year and half ago there were only 25 political prisoners left behind bars,” said David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher on Myanmar with Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Two years ago you would see demonstrations in downtown and the police would hang back, but in the past several months there has been a hardening against students and activists. It is incredibly unfortunate that the government has been so regressive.”

On March 10, police cracked down violently on a protest in the town of Letpadan, just north of Yangon, arresting 70 students who were voicing anger at a controversial education law. Five more students were charged with staging an unapproved rally on July 1, after hundreds flocked to the center of Yangon on June 30 to protest against the military’s use of its veto power to prevent the Parliament from amending the Constitution.

This revival of authoritarianism is a reminder of how hardliners have all but disappeared from Myanmar’s political scene. The Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s armed forces are called in Burmese, has been the country’s main political actor since 1962, when a coup d’état brought General Ne Win to power, and still sees dissent as a danger.

“Since Myanmar’s political reform process started, people across the country have been increasingly vocal about claiming their rights. Myanmar’s authorities have clearly not liked or been prepared for this challenge, and instead resorted to familiar tactics of repression and arrests,” wrote Rupert Abbott, Southeast Asia Research Director with Amnesty International, in an email interview with Asia Sentinel.

The looming electoral contest set to be held in November is likely to further exacerbate tensions by making the government particularly wary of “disturbances” which might foster popular discontent.

The conditions for those imprisoned have improved significantly since the 1990s – most notably, the use of torture has decreased dramatically and prisoners can now have access to reading materials, the almost complete lack of which used to be a major issue a decade ago – but challenges continue to abound. Abbott argued that Amnesty International continues to receive reports detailing a lack of access to adequate medical treatment, clean drinking water, nutritious food and water for bathing.

“Political prisoners are treated worse than ordinary criminals. They are sometimes isolated and this causes mental problems,” said Thet Tun, the deputy chief clinical Supervisor of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Thet Tun knows the problem well, having been a political prisoner himself. After taking part in the extensive protests which rocked Burma in 1988, he joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), a military group that operated in Myanmar’s ethnic areas. He was caught in 1991 and given a seven-year sentence. Released in 1997, he was rearrested in 1999 for writing articles that were critical of the government but eventually ended his 22-year sentence early, in 2011 thanks to an amnesty.

Sitting in his small office in a western suburb of Yangon, he pointed out the bitter irony which surrounded his case. “Think about it,” he said. “I was given seven years because I took up arms while the second time I used a pen and got 22 years. They hate people who write more than those who fight.”

It should also be noted that for those arrested on political charges, problems are far from over even when they are released. Long years behind bars often create psychological problems and nearly always have negative consequences in terms of education and employment. With an annual per capita GDP of US$1,203 as of 2014, Myanmar remains one of Asia’s poorest countries and money is sorely needed. Detention means a huge burden immediately falls on the shoulders of family and friends.

Nor is the judicial process necessarily over once an inmate is released. Human Rights Watch research Mathieson said charges are often only suspended rather than dropped altogether, meaning that if the person in question does something judged inimical to the government, he or she can go right back to jail. Often, political prisoners are also denied their passports and restrictions are placed on their movements.

Hopes that this situation may see a radical change are now pinned on the upcoming November elections, the first free electoral contest the country has seen since 1962. Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD) is widely expected to do well, but doubts linger on whether this will be enough to offset the current power system. Under the Constitution approved by the former military junta in 2008, the armed forces are automatically allotted 25 percent of seats in Parliament, a percentage that amounts to de facto veto power over any Constitutional change.

Thet Tun is nevertheless optimistic, arguing that thanks to improved media freedom and a growing awareness of citizens’ rights the situation has changed. But he also adds, as a note of caution, that the future remains hard to predict. “All former political prisoners can be arrested at any time,” he says.

Michele Penna is a freelance journalist and graduate in Communication Studies. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations from Peking University and has worked for several Italian media outlets.