F. Martin Acting Section Research Manager/Specialist in Asian Affairs
installation of the Union Government in 2011 and the undertaking of initial
reforms have raised the prospects for the resumption of a democratically
elected civilian government in Burma after five decades of military rule.
The release of Burma’s political prisoners has a central role in U.S.
policy and Burma’s political future. Many of the U.S. sanctions on Burma were implemented
after Burma’s ruling military junta suppressed protests and detained many
political prisoners. In addition, the removal of many of the existing U.S.
sanctions requires the release of all political prisoners in Burma.
Similarly, hopes for a democratic government in Burma—as well as national
reconciliation— would depend on the release of prisoners associated with
the country’s ethnic groups. Several ethnic-based political parties have
stated they will not participate in parliamentary elections until their
members are released from custody. Also, prospects for stable ceasefires and
lasting peace with various ethnic-based militias may require the release
of their members currently in detention.
Estimates of how many political prisoners are being detained in Burma vary
greatly. In November 2011, President Thein Sein stated that there are no
political prisoners in Burma because everyone in detention had committed a
crime. Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko told the press in
January 2012 that 128 dissidents remain in detention. According to the
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP(B), a
non-profit organization dedicated to identifying and locating political
prisoners in Burma, the Burmese government may have as many as 914
political prisoners in its 42 prisons and 109 labor camps scattered across the
Differences in the estimates of the number of political prisoners in Burma can
be attributed to two main factors. First, Burma’s prison and judicial
system is not transparent, making it difficult to obtain accurate
information. Second, there is no consensus on the definition of a “political prisoner.”
Some limit the definition of “political prisoner” to “prisoners of conscience”
(people who are detained for peaceful political opposition). The AAPP(B)
includes “anyone who is arrested because of his or her perceived or real
involvement in or supporting role in opposition movements with peaceful or
Since his appointment in April 2011, President Thein Sein has granted amnesty
to selected prisoners on six separate occasions. In total, the Union Government
has released 28,838 prisoners, of which 745 were political prisoners,
according to the AAPP(B).
The State Department is actively discussing the political prisoner issue—including
the definition of political prisoners—with the Burmese government,
opposition political parties, and representatives of some ethnic groups.
In these discussions, U.S. officials emphasize the importance of the
release of all political prisoners for the removal of U.S. sanctions on Burma.
The status of Burma’s political prisoners is likely to figure prominently in
any congressional consideration of U.S. policy in Burma. Congress may
choose to examine the political prisoner issue in Burma either separately
or as part of a broader review of U.S. policy towards Burma. Congress may
also consider taking up legislation—on its own or in response to a request from
the Obama Administration—to amend, modify, or remove some of the existing
sanctions on Burma.
Date of Report: October 19, 2012
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