On December 19th, two Kachin civilians in Burma had their sentences increased from two to seven years in jail. Lapai Gun and Brang Yung are both already serving two-year prison sentences after being convicted alongside two others under the Unlawful Associations Act last month. They were arrested in June 2012 and charged under Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Association Act. It is not yet clear why their sentences were increased. Although Thein Sein promised to release all political prisoners by the end of this year, farmers, activists and ethnic civilians are continuing to be arrested, and put on trial.
Brang Yung, 52, and Lahpai Gam, 25, were living in a refugee camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS) with their families after fleeing from conflict areas in Northern Burma. To support their families, they requested permission from a camp supervisor to work as herdsmen outside the camp. While taking a lunch break during the trip, they were taken by the Burmese Army 37th battalion for questioning. At first they were not given any reason for their arrest but they have now been accused of being soldiers from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and carrying out bombing operations near Myitkyina.
The two, along with two others who were charged, have denied any link to the KIA. The KIA is the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization, which has engaged in fighting with the Burmese Army after a ceasefire ended in 2011. Brang Yung’s wife said “The accusations against him are wrong. My husband is not a KIA solider. Our family is facing difficulties without him.”
According to Burma Campaign UK, they were brutally tortured and forced to make false confessions about their connections with the KIA and different bombings in the area. They were also accused of leaving the refugee camp several times to attend military training sessions with the KIA. According to family members, during the interrogations, they were repeatedly kicked, beaten till their scalp was cut open, forced to drink water mixed with fuel, burnt and Brang Yung’s arms were pierced with needles. They were also forced to have sexual intercourse with each other.
After more than a year in detention, they were sentenced to two years in November, and an additional five years were added to their sentence on December 19th.
“It is now very clear that Thein Sein does not keep his promises and it is very foolish for the international community to trust his words rather than his actions,” said Wai Hnin, Campaigns Officer at Burma Campaign UK. “By befriending the military-backed government, the international community is abandoning political prisoners, and ignoring their suffering. It is time for them to step up and put pressure on the government to solve the problem of political prisoners once and for all.”
Over the past year, the Burmese government has specifically targeted individuals who are speaking out against the human rights abuses resulting from the government’s mega-development projects and other activities.
The Burmese government has also arrested hundreds of ethnic minorities for political reasons. These include the many Kachin currently detained under the colonial-era 1908 Unlawful Associations Act, and many of the 900-1,000+ Rohingya who were unlawfully detained following the June 2012 violence. At least 68 of these Rohingya died in custody before December 2012.
The Burmese government has charged and convicted hundreds of these Rohingya while denying them due process rights, legal representation, and trial opportunities. The government has also detained hundreds more Rohingya under deliberately discriminatory charges, such as unlawful marriage and unauthorized immigration.
The U.S. Campaign for Burma (USCB), along with 41 other human rights organizations, expressed concern that the Burmese government is continuing to arrest political prisoners/prisoners of conscience at alarmingly high rates. These arrests blatantly discredit the Burmese government’s claim that all political prisoners will be released by the end of December 2013.
In a joint letter to US President Barack Obama, the organizations said that “Due to ongoing detentions of activists, farmers and ethnic minorities across Burma, it is necessary for your Administration to take immediate, pro-active steps to hold the Burmese government to its commitment to promptly release all political prisoners,” recommending that the Obama Administration put pressure on the Burmese government to unconditionally release all political prisoners and to repeal draconian laws used against activists.
USCB says that the Burmese government is applying a catch – release – catch again policy with notable political prisoners who have been re-arrested under new, trumped-up charges. Prominent activist Naw Ohn Hla was re-arrested on December 10th, 2013 within a month of being released. Activists Htin Kyaw and Aye Thein, granted amnesty on December 11th 2013, were rearrested within hours of being released. The government’s treatment of political prisoners has spurred 3 farmers’ rights activists to launch a hunger strike on December 13th 2013, protesting their six month long detention without a proper trial and verdict.
“The U.S. Government must pressure the Government of Burma to immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and repeal or revise draconian legal provisions that are used to imprison people who are exercising their rights to free speech and assembly,” said Rachel Wagley, Campaigns Director of USCB. “President Thein Sein’s pledge to release Burma’s political prisoners will not be fulfilled until all politically arrested ethnic minorities, farmers, and other activists are freed unconditionally.”
“The Burmese government is responsible for honoring the due process rights of all prisoners, particularly the many ethnic detainees who are facing torture and even death in Burma’s jails,” Wagley continued. “The Burmese government must vacate all convictions for released individuals to restore to them their dignity and to ensure that they do not face discriminatory hurdles in the future.”