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Monday, December 30, 2013

Burma's Political Prisoners and U.S. Sanctions - R42363

Michael F. Martin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The release of Burma’s political prisoners has a central role in U.S. policy and Burma’s political future. Many of the sanctions that the U.S. began imposing on Burma in the late 1980s 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.

Burma’s President Thein Sein pledged during his July 2013 trip to the United Kingdom to release all the political prisoners in his country by the end of the year. Since his announcement, he has granted amnesty on three occasions to a total of 198 people. Different sources provide varying estimates on the number of political prisoners that remain in detention. In addition, according to some observers, the Thein Sein government is using old and new laws to arrest and convict protesters, dissidents, and human rights advocates, creating dozens of new political prisoners, raising doubts about the President’s ability to fulfil his pledge.

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 200 political prisoners in its prisons and labor camps scattered across the country. President Thein Sein has created the Political Prisoners Scrutiny Committee to identify possible political prisoners to be considered for amnesty or pardon.

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). One of the more critical issues in defining political prisoners is whether or not to include individuals who have been detained for their alleged association with Burma’s ethnic-based militias or their associated political parties.

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.

Date of Report: December 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42363
Price: $29.95

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