UN Expert Calls for Burma to Release Political Prisoners

17 March 2009

Tomas Ojea Quintana from Argentina, Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma (file photo)
Tomas Ojea Quintana (file photo)
A U.N. special investigator is calling for Burma's ruling military junta to release more than 2,000 political prisoners. The human rights expert urges Burma's government, also known as Myanmar, to free Democratic Opposition Leader and Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi from six years of house detention. The investigator has submitted his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The U.N. Special Investigator's call for Burma's military junta to release 2,100 prisoners of conscience has had serious repercussions. News reports from Yangon say authorities arrested five members of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's political party.

The Investigator, Tomas Ojea Quintana, visited Burma last month but was not allowed to meet Suu Kyi. In presenting his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, he notes she has been under house arrest for almost six years, one year longer than permitted under Burmese law.

Quintana reiterates his appeal for the release of political prisoners and says they should be allowed to vote in the country's elections in 2010.

"I cannot discuss the situation of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar and not mention the harsh sentences delivered by prison courts," he said. "During the period between October and December 2008, some 400 prisoners of conscience were given sentences, ranging from 24 years to 65 years of imprisonment."

"In January 2009, a member of All Burma Federation of Student Union, in his early 20s, was sentenced to 104 years of imprisonment," he continued.

The Burmese Ambassador to the United Nations, Wunna Maung Lwin, rejects the investigator's charge his government was holding 2,100 prisoners of conscience.

"I would like to reiterate to the Council that there are no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar," he said. "In fact, these are only individuals who are serving the prison terms for breaking the laws in Myanmar."

Human rights expert Quintana raises concerns about the dire living conditions confronting millions of Burmese residents. He says many people have barely anything to eat, no medical facilities or utilities such as clean water.

He is very critical of the abusive treatment of ethnic minorities living in Kayin State.

"I traveled recently to Kayin State," said the U.N. special investigator. "I urge the Myanmar army and non-state armed groups in the country, to respect and not use violence against un-armed civilians. In this regard, recruitment of child soldiers, displacement of villagers, the use of anti-personnel landmines, and the forced labor of civilians should stop without any delay."

The Burmese Ambassador denies charges the military recruits children into the army. He says this is a smear by non-governmental organizations. He adds his government is cooperating with the International Labor Organization in efforts to eradicate forced labor.