The Unconditional Release of All Myanmar Political Prisoners is Non-Negotiable

By Bo Kyi

Since the 2021 coup, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has documented over 25,000 political prisoners jailed by Myanmar’s military regime. In the country’s long history of political struggle, never have so many been jailed for their political beliefs.

In the democratic struggle spanning from the 1960s up to the 2021 coup, we estimate there were at least 10,000 political prisoners. In the 2010s, AAPP worked to identify over 7,000 political prisoners, before the coup halted our efforts.

Since Operation 1027 launched a wave of successful attacks on junta bases spanning Rakhine to Sagaing to Karen State, embassies in the region appear to be shifting their stance. Everyone is now doubting the durability of military rule while fresh hope is surging among Myanmar’s people – including political detainees.

A milestone in efforts to liberate political prisoners came in November last year when resistance forces entered Kawlin Township and ousted the junta’s administration, which covered Kawlin Prison. My organization, AAPP, received a list from local sources of 63 political prisoners detained in Kawlin Prison; they were promptly released by National Unity Government (NUG) forces. These former political detainees returned to contributing to society via their professions, and most continued in their

On February 12, junta forces invaded torched much of the town, preferring to destroy homes and property rather than see the people regain control.

Junta rule still appears stable in the major cities south of Anyar, Myanmar’s dry-zone heartlands. But in places such as Yangon’s Insein Prison, huge numbers of political prisoners can’t rely on resistance forces to liberate them from suffering.

Conditions in all junta-run jails, including the reoccupied Kawlin Prison, are deplorable. Evidence indicates the regime’s prison department is intentionally depriving prisoners of adequate food, drinking or bathing water, sanitation and ventilation, and access to healthcare. In this way, political prisoners are made to feel as if they’re trapped in hell, cut off from the outside world.

Over the last year, political prisoners have staged hunger strikes and endured random torture and sexual harassment daily. There is corruption everywhere, and political prisoners are at the bottom of this brutal food chain, exploited by guards and criminal inmates alike.

The penal law has been used to oppress political prisoners for decades; even Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government freely arrested people on politically motivated charges. The recent activation of the dormant People’s Military Service Law from 2010 to forcibly conscript Myanmar’s young generation is yet another example of the use of law to oppress the people.

Even before trial, once political prisoners are trapped in military interrogation, there is no guarantee they will survive. Torture is used as standard procedure for anyone connected, or perceived to be connected, to the Spring Revolution.

In January, 20-year-old Kalar Lay was among five civilians arrested by the military in Dawei to be used as human shields on the front lines against resistance groups. He was beaten, tortured, and finally shot in the head.

Last month, former student activist Noble Aye was arrested along with Lay Khwin at a military checkpoint in Bago Region’s Waw Township. The two were shot and killed soon after, before being cremated by junta officials. Such cases are not an anomaly; they occur on a daily basis.

As well as rampant torture in the prison system, poor conditions in jails lead to serious health conditions and injury for political detainees. Twenty-eight political prisoners in Kalay Prison have reportedly spent almost two years with their feet chained in shackles. Similar conditions elsewhere have inevitably led to numerous deaths under junta rule. 

The victims include student Su May Aung, who was denied medical treatment in Magwe Prison following a bout of pneumonia combined with heart and liver problems. When she was finally sent to hospital on Jan. 22, it was too late. She died three days later. Just days later, political prisoner Yin Moe died of kidney disease on Feb. 4 after officials in Mandalay’s Obo Prison blocked medical treatment.

Such brutal deaths among political prisoners have occurred frequently across the country since the military coup.

If these last couple of years have taught us anything, it is that political change in Myanmar will come from within the country. However, if political prisoners are to be given hope of survival, pressure on the junta coupled with aid from outside the prison walls is needed. First-hand experience tells me that assistance from the outside world boosts morale among political prisoners and convinces us that we have not been forgotten.

Specific assistance programs by international donors can recognize the sacrifices of political prisoners, who face tortured and possibly death for their activism. Even when political prisoners are released, their lives can be bittersweet. This “lost generation” faces PTSD and other trauma-related conditions at every turn. International aid to fund local counseling teams is therefore essential and should be community-based to secure its long-term sustainability.

In addition, we have a responsibility to ensure accountability and justice for those who were killed and tortured in detention. Rehabilitation and justice for those who have been released are also important so that they can regain their dignity. Their criminal record must also be erased.

The military regime is now looking weaker than at any point since the coup. The National Unity Government and Ethnic Revolutionary Organisations (EROs) must prepare for the junta’s deceitful tactics in a future peace process.

One point on which they cannot compromise is the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Win Myint. The ongoing arbitrary detention of Myanmar’s state counselor and president was recognized in the UN Security Council’s 2022 resolution. It is a grave injustice that the legitimate leaders of the country are behind bars, and without the release of all political prisoners – including the teachers, the nurses, the children, the lawyers, the students and everyone else – the idea that an armed force is permitted to carry out a coup or arbitrarily arrest tens of thousands, will remain.

Releasing only select political prisoners would underscore the military’s ongoing use of manipulation tactics to maintain its grip on power.

Releasing all of them would be a crucial first step in demonstrating the military’s intent to relinquish that grip. But liberating only some of the 25,000-plus political prisoners would show that the military has not changed.

The unconditional release of all political prisoners would pave the way for dialogue to ensure the military steps down from any involvement in politics and the economy and respects the people’s desire for a genuine federal democracy.

Bo Kyi is a former political prisoner who currently works as joint secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.