THE BLOG

UK Silent on Growing Numbers of Political Prisoners in Burma

21/08/2014 17:37 BST | Updated 21/10/2014 10:59 BST

The number of political prisoners in Burma has more than doubled since the start of 2014, according to figures from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma.

The end of 2013 came and went without President Thein Sein delivering on his promise to release all political prisoners. The promise was made during his controversial visit to the UK in the summer of 2013, and seized upon by the British government in defence of their decision to spend thousands of pounds of British taxpayer's money giving Thein Sein red-carpet treatment while he visited.

At the time, the British government shamefully tried to put a positive spin on the failure, claiming that Thein Sein had ordered the release of all political prisoners, but this was simply repeating a lie by one of Thein Sein's spokespeople. Around 30 political prisoners were left in jail, and more than 30 have joined them since the start of 2014. Hundreds more are awaiting trial, mostly for taking part in peaceful protests.

The growing number of political prisoners is just one of many signs of the backsliding of the reform process in 2014. Even the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma has issued a public warning.

The British government's response to this has been to try not to talk about it. No mention of the number of political prisoners doubling is made in their latest update on the human rights situation in Burma. Instead the update led on a tenuous claim of progress in legislative change. Even here, the most they could claim was that new legislation would bring Burma 'more' into line with international standards, which translated without the positive spin means these laws still don't actually meet international standards.

The UK, USA and rest of the international community made a tactical mistake by treating President Thein Sein's promise to release all political prisoners as meaning the problem was solved. They relaxed pressure on this issue, rather than applying more pressure to make sure he kept his promise. Having spent the latter part of 2013 welcoming the promise, an embarrassed British government now makes no reference to it, as it is yet another example of how they have been duped. Their rose-tinted glasses blinded them to what was really going on in the country.

The issue of the growing number of political prisoners has fallen way down the British agenda for Burma. They are clearly prepared to accept that there will be some political prisoners, and not allow that to affect their relationship with the Burmese government in any way. Instead of a political priority, political prisoners have been relegated to just one talking point among many others when ministers visit.

Burma Campaign UK and other European Burma campaign groups, collectively known as the European Burma Network, in consultation with organisations in Burma, have proposed that a new independent political prisoner review committee be set up in Burma. It should be independent, include international experts, and have powers through legislation in the Burmese Parliament to review the cases of anyone believed to be in prison for political reasons, or because of their race or religion. It should also have the legal power to order the pardon and release of prisoners it assesses to be in jail for political reasons, and to award them compensation. A committee of this kind would also be best placed to identify repressive laws, or the misuse of laws for political purposes, and recommend to Parliament that they be amended in line with international human rights standards or repealed altogether.

Facing criticism from organisations such as Burma Campaign UK, the British government has now come out in support of a new review committee to ensure all political prisoners are released, stating they support: 'a comprehensive and transparent mechanism to review cases of political prisoners in Burma.'

However, they are not taking any practical action to ensure such a committee is established. The support appears to be in name only, to placate the thousands of campaigners who have been emailing and writing to them about this issue.

One way to mobilise international support and to increase pressure on the Burmese government to agree to establish such a committee would have been to include a call for it in the annual United Nations General Assembly Resolution on human rights in Burma. Shamefully though, European Union members, who normally take the lead in drafting the annual resolution, are close to deciding not to go ahead with it this year. This is despite the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma reporting numerous ongoing human rights violations, many of which could constitute violations of international law.

There was a time when the British government led the way in Europe pushing for countries to prioritise human rights in Burma. It no longer shows that interest in human rights and so the leadership is missing.

Discontinuing the UN General Assembly Resolution on Burma at a time when the number of political prisoners is growing will give great comfort to Thein Sein, but is a betrayal of all political prisoners, whose numbers are likely to continue growing.