Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs
The installation of a new quasi-civilian government in 2011 and the undertaking of a number of political reforms have raised the prospects for the resumption of a fully 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. 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 be holding over 100 political prisoners in its prisons and labor camps scattered across the country.
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 resistance means.”
Since his appointment in April 2011, President Thein Sein has granted amnesty to selected prisoners on 12 separate occasions, the latest occurring on October 8, 2013. In total, the Union Government has released 29,601 prisoners, of whom 1,002 were political prisoners, according to the AAPP(B). During his July 2013 visit to the United Kingdom, President Thein Sein pledged that all prisoners of conscience in Burma would be released by the end of the year. However, critics claim that the Union Government continues to arrest and detain new political prisoners, often for violating new laws governing the right to peaceful assembly and protest.
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 further easing or 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.
This report will be updated as circumstances require.
Date of Report: October 30, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42363
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