Historical Context From the 8888 uprising to the Spring Revolution
After Burma gained independence in 1948 from over a century of British colonialism, the country was led by a democratic government headed by U Nu, the country was still quite divided and civil wars with different ethnic and politically armed groups broke out. Then, in 1962 general Ne Win staged a coup and took power under the guise of protecting the country. Ne Win’s regime would build upon the oppressive legacy of colonial rule and lay the foundations for military dictatorships that control the country even today.
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 was deplorable. Torture was, and continues to be, a common tactic used by prison authorities and the military during interrogation to elicit false confessions. Individuals often endure psychological torture and can be imprisoned in remote locations, far away from their families and loved ones, making it more difficult to receive prison visits.
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). Yet despite such releases, activists and journalists continued to be arrested through the Thein Sein administration, and high hopes for extensive democratic reform of Burma fell flat. During this period Burma continued to be institutionally dominated by the military and brutally repressed the democratic opposition.
Then, in November 2015 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.
However, despite hope of systematic change, political prisoners continued 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. Freedom of Expression was still declining, prison conditions were not improving and there still existed hundreds of political prisoners across Burma.
During the Covid-19 epidemic, many prisons struggled to contain the virus effectively. The government was still arresting people for acts of freedom of expression, filling up Myanmar’s already overcrowded prisons. During this period the prison authorities banned prison visitations in an apparent effort to curb COVID-19. These visitation rights were not given back for another three years and prison visits for family members can still be denied in many prisons to this day.
After the military (also known as the ‘Tatmadaw’) attempted to retake power in a coup on February 1, 2021, the devastatingly cruel and violent response to peaceful protestors, along with the arrests of those taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement, and NLD members, meant that the number of political prisoners rose exponentially. Prisons became even more overcrowded with anyone suspected of supporting the civilian government.
Since the Spring Revolution we have seen a distressing increase of crimes against humanity, encompassing torture, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, mass arrests, property seizures, arbitrary arrests, and a general deterioration of prison conditions. The military seems to be employing even more brutal tactics than previously including taking family members of political activists’ hostages if they cannot be found.
In July of 2022, the military executed four political prisoners: Kyaw Min Yu (aka Ko Jimmy), Phyo Zayar Thaw, Hla Myo Aung, Aung Thura Zaw. This was the first time since 1987 the death penalty had actually been carried out, whilst the military continues more extrajudicial killings, claiming prisoners died from pre-existing illnesses when in fact they died from severe torture and lack of medical care.
The current situation remains dire with thousands of political prisoners detained with their lives at risk. The current prison conditions are at their worst and the current tactics of the military and prison authorities include torture as standard procedure. Since the start of the coup, over 25,000 people have been arrested for their political stance and pro-democracy ideas, and this number continues to rise, and prisons become increasingly overcrowded and dangerous.