Summary and Current Status
On September 23, 2008, after serving more than fifteen-and-one-half years of his two lengthy sentences, Myanmarese geologist Khin Maung Swe was unconditionally released from prison. Khin Maung Swe was first arrested after he won a seat in the People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw) in the 1990 general election, running on the slate of the main opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Convicted of high treason and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, he was released from prison under a conditional amnesty after 18 months. He was re-arrested in 1994, convicted, and given a seven-year prison sentence for having peacefully expressed his political opinions and for attempting to pass on information about the situation in his country to foreign nationals, including a U.N. Special Rapporteur. The Myanmarese authorities did not release him from prison when his term expired in 2001, but rather revoked his conditional amnesty and told him that he had to finish serving his previous ten-year prison sentence. Amnesty International adopted him as a prisoner of conscience.
Following the completion of his studies in geology, Khin Maung Swe went to work for a state-owned oil corporation. Several years later he was forced to leave his job because of his involvement in opposition politics. He became a member of the Central Executive Committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD). In the May 27, 1990 general election, Khin Maung Swe won a seat in the People’s Assembly (Pyithu Hluttaw), representing the citizens of Sanchaung Township in Yangon. Although the elections were widely considered to have been free and fair, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Myanmar’s ruling military junta, refused to recognize the results because the NLD won 82 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. On October 20, 1990, officers from Myanmar’s military intelligence service (MIS) arrested Khin Maung Swe and more than 70 other members of Parliament-elect who were affiliated with the NLD.
Khin Maung Swe and the majority of the elected representatives detained with him were charged under Sections 122/1, 122/2 and 124 of the Penal Code with high treason—an offense which is punishable by death in the Union of Myanmar—for allegedly attempting to force the SLORC to transfer power by establishing a parallel government. The detainees, Khin Maung Swe among them, were tried and sentenced in summary trials in closed courts, most inside prisons, under martial law provisions in violation of their right to a fair trial. He was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for “knowledge of treason” on April 19, 1991.
On July 10, 1991, Khin Maung Swe and the other MPs were stripped of their elected positions by SLORC Order 4/91, which states that anyone convicted of “moral turpitude” or offenses relating to law and order “has no right to continue to be a People’s Assembly representative.” SLORC Order 10/91, issued the same day, states that anyone convicted of those offenses “shall have no right to stand for election as a People’s Assembly candidate in elections to be held in the future.”
Khin Maung Swe served approximately one year and six months of his 10-year sentence in Insein Prison in Yangon. On May 1, 1992, he was released from prison under a conditional amnesty set forth in Order 11/92, otherwise known as the “Release and Reduce Punishment Order.”
At liberty for about two years, Khin Maung Swe was rearrested on August 4, 1994. This time, he and four others were arrested for meeting and allegedly passing “fabricated” information to foreign journalists and diplomats. Specifically, the Myanmarese authorities alleged that he had attempted to meet with Professor Yozo Yokota, U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, in December 1992, in order to provide him with human rights information. It should be noted that Khin Maung Swe’s arrest contravened U.N. Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1994/70 on cooperation with representatives of U.N. human rights bodies.
Charged under Section 5(e) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act (EPA), Khin Maung Swe was subsequently convicted for “caus[ing] or intend[ing] to spread false news, knowing beforehand that it is untrue.” On October 6, 1994, following a trial that failed to meet international fair trial standards in numerous substantive ways, Khin Maung Swe was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, the maximum allowable under the 1950 EPA for anyone who “causes or infringes upon the integrity, health, conduct and respect of state or military organizations … or spreads false news about the government.” The 1950 EPA has been widely criticized internationally as a law that is frequently used by the judiciary to punish individuals solely for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, opinion, and association, as promulgated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In addition to the misuse of vaguely-worded laws to keep political prisoners behind bars, it is noteworthy that it is widely believed that the judiciary in the Union of Myanmar is not independent and that the courts are manipulated by the government for political reasons, thereby further violating the fundamental rights of political prisoners such as Khin Maung Swe. A U.N. Commission on Human Rights resolution on the “Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar” passed in April 2001 states that it deplores “the lack of independence of the judiciary from the executive and the wide disrespect of the rule of law, including of the basic guarantees of due process, especially in cases involving exercise of political and civil rights and freedoms.” The U.S. Department of State, in its Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Burma, issued on March 8, 2006, states that, “Reliable reports indicate that senior junta authorities dictate verdicts in political cases, regardless of the evidence or the law.”
Throughout his incarceration, Khin Maung Swe was subjected to conditions of confinement that failed to meet the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Initially he was sent to Insein Prison in Yangon to serve his seven-year sentence. There are credible reports that, while incarcerated there during the period from 1994 to 1997, he was subjected to beatings by military intelligence personnel, including on his face. According to reliable sources, the beatings ended about the same time that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) received permission to visit prisons in Myanmar.
In May 1998 Khin Maung Swe was transferred to Myingyan Prison, where he served the rest of his sentence. Although his seven-year sentence expired in 2001, Khin Maung Swe was never released. Reliable reports indicate that Myanmarese authorities revoked his “conditional amnesty” and are forcing him to serve the remainder of his previous ten year prison sentence. He reportedly continued to be held at Myingyan Prison until January 22, 2006, when he was transported from Myingyan Prison to Oh-Bo Prison near Mandalay—approximately a three-and-one-half hour journey—on a commercial bus among other passengers with his hands and feet chained. Myanmarese authorities reportedly neglected to inform Khin Maung Swe’s family that he had been moved to a different prison facility.
Khin Maung Swe was held in the hospital within Oh-Bo Prison in a solitary cell (#5) that had no window, toilet, sink, or mosquito net. It is our understanding that all of the letters, books, and photos that Khin Maung Swe had in his possession at Myingyan Prison were returned to his family following his transfer. Reportedly, the medical care that Khin Maung Swe received at Oh-Bo Prison was provided exclusively by prison doctors. According to a 2004 report by Amnesty International entitled Myanmar: Facing Political Imprisonment: Prisoners of concern to Amnesty International, Khin Maung Swe suffers from chronic health problems that were been exacerbated by his harsh conditions of confinement. He reportedly suffered from chest pain, hypertension, piles, swollen face and feet, and heart disease.
On February 27, 2008, Khin Maung Swe was transferred once again, this time from the hospital within Oh-Bo Prison to a prison in Lashio in a remote, mountainous region of the country some 600 miles from Yangon where Khin Maung Swe’s family resides. To visit Khin Maung Swe, his family members had to make an arduous 12-hour bus trip to Mandalay followed by a 7-hour trip by private car service to Lashio. Consequently, even though prison authorities in Lashio reportedly permitted Khin Maung Swe to have a closely monitored family visit twice a month, because of distance, expense, and hardships associated with Cyclone Nargis, his loved ones were only able to visit him twice at that location. Prison officials reportedly were present during these visits, took notes on the conversations, and enforced a 15 to 20 minute time limit. This situation clearly contravened the spirit of Principle 20 of the U.N. Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, which states that: “If a detained or imprisoned person so requests, he shall if possible be kept in a place of detention or imprisonment reasonably near his usual place of residence.” Because prisoners in Myanmar rely on their families to bring them food to supplement the meager prison diet, Khin Maung Swe’s imprisonment in a location far from his family also had negative consequences for his already deteriorated health.
On September 23, 2008, Khin Maung Swe was among several NLD leaders unconditionally released from prison. Press accounts speculated that the Myanmarese government’s unexpected decision to grant amnesty to these prominent political dissidents was due to international pressure and timed to coincide with the start of the 63rd session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.