Just one day after Aung San Suu Kyi pledged that the release of activists and political prisoners would be the first priority of her new government, a court in Myanmar has dropped charges against almost 200 political prisoners.
In November, Suu Kyi guided the NLD to a landslide victory, with her confidant Htin Kyaw sworn in as the country’s new president. As Suu Kyi’s presidential candidacy was illegitimate due to constitutional limitations, the political figurehead was sworn in as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Education, and Energy. However, the upper house of the Myanmar parliament passed a proposal to create a new position of “State Adviser” that gives Suu Kyi unmatched powers in running the country.
“Police have dropped 199 cases against political activists around the country as of yesterday,” an anonymous senior police officer said on Saturday.
The cases were dismissed on Friday, according to the officer, following Suu Kyi’s announcement the previous day that the first priority of her new civilian-led administration was to secure the freedom of hundreds of political prisoners stuck in Myanmar’s prisons. Court officials said they began preparing the release of students shortly after Suu Kyi’s statement, which said her government would try to free detainees who are still on trial by asking the state prosecutor to drop the charges.
“Our release showed that we didn’t commit any crime, we suffered in prison for more than one year,” Ei Thinzar Maung, 20, said after her release. “We are happy but we want the new government to release all political prisoners immediately,” she added.
Dozens of those freed on Friday were student activists who were locked up for more than a year. Most of those given freedom were protesters at a demonstration for education in central Tharrawaddy, with demonstrators calling for more power to be assigned to universities and higher education institutions, the right to form student unions, and the ability to teach in ethnic minority languages. However, the protests ended in violence and the arrest of sixty-five people, with a video showing the police cornering and beating demonstrators sparking condemnation from the international community.
Under the previous brutal militant rule, dissidents were routinely arrested and jailed. However, reforms in recent years have improved socio-political conditions as the military regime loosened its power, after more than fifty years of oppressive rule. Nevertheless, hundreds of detained activists still await trial and scores of political prisoners still suffer in jails.
Despite this, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights groups see the students’ release as a positive step away from the highly abusive laws of the militant regime, urging Suu Kyi and her party to invest in legal reforms that would amend the unjust abuse and imprisonment of peaceful protesters.
“We look forward to the release of all remaining political prisoners and their full rehabilitation,” the European Union said in a statement.
Additionally, HRW’s deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson also said,
“They have to release political prisoners but they also have to do away with these rights-abusing laws. The National League for Democracy (NLD) has an absolute majority in both houses of the national assembly; they can do this.”
It should be noted that a quarter of parliamentary seats are automatically held by the military, meaning any reforms or new legislation are still subject to influence by the militant regime. However, reform could still be very likely, considering that a large majority of the new party in power have experienced political detention. In particular, the new state chancellor Suu Kyi herself has had extensive experience in being a political prisoner herself, after spending approximately 15 years under house arrest. Additionally, more than 100 current MP’s also served time in Myanmar’s most notorious of prisons.
While much work towards political and social change still remains to right the wrongs of the past brutal militant regime, Suu Kyi’s leadership role signifies an important shift towards democracy. From her leadership, the nation can finally dare to look forward to a prosperous and peaceful era structured by a democratic ruling.
And to the estimated 400 political prisoners still behind bars, the prospect of freedom is closer and more real than ever before.