11/12/2015, 00.00
MYANMAR
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As country gets ready to celebrate NLD victory, student protesters still in custody

by Francis Khoo Thwe
Some students arrested for protesting against education reform are still on a hunger strike, and their health is deteriorating. For Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the release of political prisoners is a priority. However, Defence and Home Affairs ministries will remain in the hands of the military.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – In a country eagerly waiting only for the official announcement before celebrating the victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD), one unresolved issue still casts a dark shadow on the fate of its democracy, namely the plight of political prisoners, including students who were arrested months ago for protesting against the government’s proposed education reform.

Public attention has refocused on the case after prisoners’ advocates announced that six detained activists were still on a hunger strike, reportedly in poor health. One is said to be in hospital; little is known of the others because prison authorities have not allowed family visits.

The NLD and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a veteran of house arrest, have said that one of a number of important steps the party would take in the interests of national reconciliation and the peace process would be to release political prisoners.

This might be hard to do since under the existing constitution key ministries like Home Affairs and Defence will remain in the hands of the military.

In June 2013, outgoing President U Thein Sein had promised to free all prisoners by the end of that year, a pledge he failed to uphold. So much so that at the close of 2013 30 prisoners of conscience were languishing in Myanmar jails.

Since then the number did nothing but climb. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and Former Political Prisoners Society, Myanmar has 112 political prisoners, mostly students, activists, journalists, labour rights activists, politicians and farmers. Another 470 people are on trial and facing potential prison terms.

One of the prisoners is Phyo Dana, a student who had been on a hunger strike for about nine days, and has been admitted to hospital for gastrointestinal problems, because it required urgent medical care, according to family members.

Two other students – Than Htike and Kyaw Zwa Lin – who suffer respectively from asthma and hematemesis (blood vomiting) have decided to end their hunger strike due to health concerns.

Soe Hlaing and Si Thu Myat, two students from Myin Chan Prison in Mandalay, also joined the hunger strike in early November, in a show of solidarity with their fellow students in Tharrawaddy Prison. Their current health conditions are unknown because their families have not been allowed to meet with them since their hunger strike began.

All of the students involved in the hunger strike were jailed for their involvement in a protest movement earlier this year against a controversial new national education law that was broken up violently by police in Letpadan Township.

This eventually drew international media and protests from Western governments with, in many minds, fresh memories of the tragic events of September 2007, when the authorities violently repressed a protest by monks and young people.

Meanwhile, writer and anti-hate speech campaigner Nay Phone Latt, whose political blog earned him years behind bars, won a seat in the Yangon Regional Parliament.

“Everybody is happy. I have so many responsibilities,” he said as he vowed to protect public space and fight for free speech.”

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