Since the peaceful, student led uprisings of 1988 and the brutal crackdown on the demonstrations that followed, the regime in Burma has sought to stifle any opposition within the country. Accordingly, freedom of expression has been non-existent. Many activists who participated in the 1988 demonstrations were arrested. Others endured long, harsh prison sentences while the regime has continued to arrest and incarcerate political activists to this day.
The Saffron Revolution in 2007, led by Buddhist monks, saw hundreds of thousands of people protesting the regime and a huge increase in the numbers of political prisoners. From the one-party state under the Burmese Socialist Party Program (BSPP) to the military dictatorship of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), later the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and finally to the military backed government of Thein Sein—opposition groups struggled in a landscape dominated by the regime. Due to this intolerance, journalists, political activists, ethnic nationalists and human rights defenders risked imprisonment as a result of their political beliefs and activities. Not only could harsh sentences be handed down, but their treatment while detained is deplorable. Tortured was and continues to be a common occurrence during interrogation to elicit false confessions and individuals can be imprisoned in remote locations, far away from their families, making family visitation difficult.
In 2011, the nominally civilian Thein Sein administration initiated a series of political prisoner releases. One major release that took place on January 13, 2012 is seen as a watershed in Burma’s democratic aspirations. Hundreds of political prisoners were released in one fell swoop, including a high proportion of prominent activists such as 88 Generation leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, journalists Zaw Htet Htwe and Hla Hla Win, monk leader U Gambira, and Shan ethnic leader Khun Htun Oo. While the releases of political prisoners are celebrated, they continue to be released into an environment that represses basic civil and political liberties where the threat of re-arrest is ever present. In 2013, AAPP helped secure a total of 380 releases of political prisoners (336 prisoners under amnesty and 44 were released under regular court decision).
Burma continued to be institutionally dominated by the military, brutally repressing the democratic opposition until in November 2015 when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party the National League for Democracy (NLD), in a landslide victory, won the general elections, resulting in the first democratically-elected civilian government in half a century. The NLD officially took power in March 2016 with the inauguration of President U Htin Kyaw.
The new democratic government has presented new opportunities for legislative and policy reform and even some hope for the political prisoners’ situation. On April 17 and 18 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Htin Kyaw respectively granted mass amnesty to a total of 198 political prisoners across the two days. However, Despite promises to release all remaining political prisoners, AAPP are still lobbying and campaigning for the release of hundreds of incarcerated individuals. People continue to be arrested, detained, denied bail and harshly prosecuted for their right to freedom of expression and for publicly criticizing or challenging the policies and actions of the government, the military, and its officials. People accused of committing these crimes are also frequently charged under a combination of these laws, resulting in a culmination of even more severe and lengthy sentences. Individuals arrested and charged with these offences are rarely granted bail and are often held in prison for months awaiting trial.