After Myanmar state television announced on Monday that amnesty would be granted to more than 5,600 people who had protested against the February military coup, friends and relatives of political prisoners gathered outside jails and detention centres around the country to greet the released political leaders, artists and a large number of journalists.

Among those waiting at Yangon’s Insein prison with bouquets of flowers and welcome placards from morning of October 18 were women activists waiting for the release of Thin Thin Aung, the founder member of the Women’s League for Burma. They had to wait the whole day. They had nearly given up hope when she was released late in the evening.

The political prisoners were released by the military junta on the occasion of the Thadingyut Festival. Also known as the Lighting Festival of Myanmar, the Thadingyut Festival is held on the full moon day of the Burmese lunar month of Thadingyut. The celebration welcomes the Buddha’s descent from the heavens after he preached the Abhidhamma to his mother, Maya.

The Myanmar junta said they were releasing the political prisoners so that they could together participate in nation building. I wondered whether the Indian government might suddenly decide to come with a similar gesture on Diwali day. How appropriate it would be to celebrate the release of prisoners on the day that is celebrated as the return of Lord Rama from an exile that was unjust and unfair and led to so much suffering to the families.

Change of heart?

But was the release of so many political prisoners a reflection of a change of heart of the junta?

According to the Myanmar Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, there were 9,028 political prisoners on October 18. This meant that more than 3,000 political prisoners were still under detention. The junta said that those charged with bombings or destroying public property were excluded from the amnesty.

However, it is not only those involved in armed resistance who have been excluded from the amnesty. Those still in jail include the democratically elected members of parliament who won the election in 2020. The leader of the winning party, the National League for Democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was also still under detention, being denied basic rights to fair trial.

The release of political prisoners was because of pressure from the 10-nation Association of South East Asian Nations or Asean. In a very unusual event, the Asean meeting of foreign ministers took an unanimous decision not to allow the Myanmar junta representative to attend a summit meeting to be held later this month in Bander Seri Begwan, the capital of Brunei. This has been an unusually bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which normally prefers a policy of engagement and non-interference.

Instead, the Asean countries decided to invite a member of the government in exile to represent Myanmar. This was described by the media as “an unprecedented snub to the military leader” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

He was barred from the summit for failing to fulfill promises made to Aseanof engaging in dialogue with the junta’s opponents and de-escalating the violence in Myanmar.

Fears of re-arrest

I was hoping for some photographs of Thin Thin Aung and perhaps a quick word but she quickly disappeared from the jail gates. Her friends are afraid she may be rearrested. All the excitement of the day evaporated. The junta warned political prisoners that if they are re-arrested, they will have to serve the rest of their original sentences, as well as any new one.

Already, 11 out of 38 people released from Meiktila prison in central Myanmar have been arrested again, according to Democratic Voice of Burma.

UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, welcomed the release but said it was “outrageous” that they had been detained in the first place.

The situation in Myanmar has deteriorated. Several people have died Covid-19 as hospitals are closed with doctors, nurses and staff remaining on strike as a part of the Civil Disobedience Movement. Many activists, especially in the urban areas, have no money and no food.

Those who can try to escape to take refuge in India but find themselves stuck at the border. Some have in desperation made false identity cards and have been caught and are now in jail in Manipur. Some have died of Covid-19 under detention in India.

It is ironic that refugees escaping from a military junta should find themselves in jail in democratic India. Perhaps it is another opportunity for us to think about a law to protect refugees.

Defining political prisoners

The wider significance of the release of the political prisoners in Myanmar is that the junta has recognised that such a category exists. In India, we do not have a count of number of political prisoners or a definition of what constitutes a political prisoner.

It was ten years ago, in October 2012, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe became the first major intergovernmental organisation to approve concrete criteria for what defines a political prisoner. According to PACE guidelines, a person is a political prisoner if he or she meets any one of the following criteria:

  •   The detention violates basic guarantees in the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association.  
  •   The detention is imposed for purely political reasons.  
  •   The length or conditions of detention are out of proportion to the offence.   
  •   He or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.  
  • The detention is the result of judicial proceedings that are clearly unfair and connected with the political motives of authorities.  

The Indian human rights movement has still to begin any conversation on who constitutes a political prisoner. We need to remember the definition does not include the specific ideology of the prisoner or what his or her beliefs are. The need for that conversation is urgent as so many men and women have been incarcerated in jails all over India.

I have been always moved by the way prisoners keep alive hope of freedom in the most desperate of situations. Take for instance a letter from jail by a feminist activist Devangana Kalita. She wrote about a rainbow in the sky she saw one evening. It was an extraordinary sight and the children detained with her because their mothers were imprisoned were so excited because they had never seen one. The rainbow sighting filled them with hope.

What an extraordinary thing it would be if 5,000 prisoners were released from jails in India and Burmese refugees found themselves welcomed in India and the Myanmar government in exile is allowed to open its office in Delhi instead of being cooped up in a camp in Mizoram.

That would be Ram Rajya indeed.

In an article earlier this year, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Ram Madhav set out this vision of Ram Rajya:

“As Bhishma tells Yudhisthira in the Shanti Parv of the Mahabharat, which was repeated by Chanakya in Arth Shastra:

प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥

This means, ‘The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.’”

People like to be free; free to peacefully protest.

Surely democratic India cannot afford to have a worse track record than Myanmar under military rule?

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.