Still in the grip of Burma's tyrants

Burma's reforms and by-elections have moved attention away from the country's political prisoners

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The Independent Online

They say they are the forgotten people, that while the world has moved on, beguiled by Burma's flurry of reforms and its by-elections, their own pain endures, unnoticed. The son of U Thaung Sein and Daw San Myint was jailed 14 years ago for his role in Burma's long-suppressed democracy movement. They had hoped he may have been released with other political prisoners in an amnesty last year, or a more recent one in January. But he remains behind bars.

"Nobody has told us why he has not been released," said the father, a storekeeper who lives in the east of Rangoon, as he served glasses of lemonade in the front-room of his cement-floored home. "We have been told nothing."

The couple are not alone. Activists estimate that while the Burmese authorities claim to have set free all political prisoners, anywhere between 300 to 800 individuals remain in jail. They say that after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest 18 months ago and the remaining high-profile prisoners such as Min Ko Naing and Ashin Gambira released earlier this year, securing attention for their plight has been increasingly difficult.

"The main political prisoners have been released so the rest of the world has forgotten," added Thaung Sein, as his wife wiped her eyes. Their son, Ko Aye Aung, was arrested in 1998 aged 22. Convicted along with dozens of others of various crimes related to his democracy activities, he was sentenced to a total of 59 years and dispatched to Kalay prison in north-west Burma.

The tortuous journey to the jail from their Rangoon home, where a 1995 photograph of their son receiving an essay prize from Ms Suu Kyi hangs on the wall, involves taxis, buses and vans and takes two days. For many years, his parents, both aged 66, could only afford to visit twice a year for a 20-minute meeting. With assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross, they now make the journey every two months. On March 16, Ko Aye Aung's mother was, for the first time in 14 years, permitted to hug her son.

"On January 13 this year, there was an early amnesty. I was hoping that on that day he would be released. The reality is that he is now the only political prisoner in that jail," she said. "We are trying not to despair. It's very difficult for us. We try to control ourselves not to cry when we see the walls of that prison. We are the parents of the only political prisoner left inside."

When he was not released, some of their neighbours accepted the government's claim that he must have been a "common criminal". They had to try and persuade them otherwise.

Among those arrested with their son was Sam Zaw Htwe, who served a 12-year sentence before being released from Taunggyi prison in the amnesty this January. He remained in contact with Ko Aye Aung by letter while both were in jail. Now he feels awkward talking about his own release while his friend remains behind bars. "It depends how many connections you have. For the political prisoners, if they have international media [attention] they are treated better," he said. "But if the prisoner has no connection with the outside world, then they are forgotten."

The family of U Myint Aye is also trying not to give up hope. The long-term political activist, now aged 61, has been arrested on eight occasions, most recently in 2008 in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis when he tried to organise sorely-need health care for women and children. He was accused of involvement in a bomb plot, a claim his family reject. His wife, Daw Hle Hle Win, said they too had hoped he would be among those released on 13 January, but he was not. "We are hoping that he will be released in the near future," she said.

There is no agreed figure as to how many political prisoners remain in jail. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners puts the figure at more than 800 while other lists suggest the figure is closer to 300.

U Win Tin, a member of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party and a former political prisoner himself who served more than 19 years in jail, said: "There are still a lot of political prisoners. The government said it had released them all. But this is not true."

One Western diplomat in Rangoon said embassies kept their own rough estimates based on a compilation of those produced by various organisations. He said Western countries had repeatedly stressed the need for political prisoners to be released before economic sanctions could be lifted.

Khin Zaw, a former political prisoner who heads a prisoner support organisation, said it estimates that between 345 and 619 people remain behind bars. "We have talked to a lot of people who have been released, but some people are too frightened to talk," he said.

Even the government's comments about political prisoners have been confusing. While some officials have insisted there are no more such prisoners, the day after the January amnesty, the Home Minister, Lieutenant General Ko Ko, said 128 prisoners previously identified as "political" were not being released because they "could have been involved in strictly criminal cases such as terrorist bombings". The Western diplomat said there was concern that a number of these cases were not genuine.

The family of Phyo Wai Aung, an engineer with two young children, also believes the world has moved on. Most recently, attention has been on by-elections on Sunday that swept Ms Suu Kyi into parliament for the first time.

Though not a political prisoner in the strictest sense, groups are supporting Phyo Wai Aung because they see his detention and charge over a bombing incident in April 2010 that killed 10 people as evidence of the judiciary's corruption. His brother, Dr Hhet Wai Aung, said the authorities have produced no evidence against him but tortured him to obtain a confession and labelled him a terrorist. The case has been raised by the UN human rights rapporteur.

"They took him to a secret interrogation centre and beat a confession from him," said his brother. For 18 months, proceedings against the prisoner were held in a closed courtroom inside Rangoon's notorious Insein jail. The case is continuing. Activists say that although Phyo Wai Aung was not a political activist himself he had connections with exile groups and had formerly worked with some campaigners.

"For one and half years the family was not allowed to see him," added his brother. "All the human rights violations are happening because of an unfair judicial system." The prisoner's wife, Mahtay Htay, said they had initially not told the children about what was happening. But their daughter is now aged eight and asks about her father. "Now we tell them their father has been arrested by the bad police," she says.

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