The authorities in Myanmar, also known as Burma, arrested at least five members of the opposition National League for Democracy party or NLD on Tuesday. A spokesman of the NLD said the police detained the party members without any explanation. The latest arrests come just a day after the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar released a report urging the junta to release all political prisoners and to allow them to participate in an election set for 2010.
Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of the past 19 years under house arrest
Tomas Okea Quintana’s assessment is based on his visit to Myanmar in February this year. The UN human rights envoy says more than 2,100 political prisoners are being held in Myanmar’s prisons after being sentenced at secret hearings, often without proof and without legal representation. In a 41 page report Quintana says detainees are suffering from a lack of medical care and physical ill-treatment and that nearly 600 of them have rarely seen their families because they are being held in jails far from their hometowns.
Quintana has also called for an urgent and independent review of the case of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been kept under house arrest for nearly six years.
“The junta must listen to the UN and the international community’s concerns,” says Soe Aung, a pro-democracy activist from Myanmar, who is now based in Bangkok.
“The release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners has become an international benchmark to judge the state of democracy in the country.”
In late February the junta released more than 6,000 prisoners. Only 29 of them were political detainees.
The issue of the release of political prisoners is picking up as the country approaches the general elections. The junta has promised to hold elections in 2010, which would be the country's first vote in nearly two decades. Critics say the polls would be sham unless pro-democracy leaders, such as Suu Kyi, are released and take part in them.
In a bid to put more pressure on the junta, a global signature campaign is also under way. Activist Soe Aung, who is also the spokesperson of the ‘Free Burma's Political Prisoners Now’ campaign, explains:
“The campaign has been initiated by exile organisations and nearly 173 Burma support groups, who are collecting signatures and then will give them to UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, urging him to work harder to secure the release of the political prisoners.”
Putting pressure on the UN
The aim is to collect 888,888 signatures by May 24 when Suu Kyi’s house arrest is due to end. Activist Soe Aung says the number of signatures is highly significant:
"The 888,888 signatures symbolise the Aug 88 movement, when at least 3,000 people sacrificed their lives in Yangon and other cities. So in order to remember what happened 20 years ago, we are aiming to reach this figure in the petition.”
The petition calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to make it his personal priority to secure the release of all political prisoners, adding it is an essential step towards restoring democracy in the country.