The final day of our USCB trip took us to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), or AAPP. We met with a former political prisoner who was imprisoned for 10 years for distributing pro democracy literature and giving financial support to the democracy movement in 1998. She bravely spoke of her time at Insein prison in Rangoon and Moulmein prison in Mon State. She described prison conditions as being very poor, with inadequate food, water, and medical care. During her first six months in detention, she was allowed only 15 minutes a day outside of her cell. As the prison became overcrowded, she went from having one cell mate to five, including one prisoner convicted of murder.
Political prisoners are commonly dependent on their families to provide supplemental food supplies, medicine, clothing, and reading materials. However, political prisoners are often deliberately transferred to facilities hundreds of miles away from their homes to burden families and minimize visits.
AAPP was established in March 2000 to improve the lives of current and former political prisoners. As of a December 23, 2011 information release, AAPP has accounted for at least 1,572 political prisoners. They have taken on the arduous task of collecting information on the whereabouts and conditions of current political prisoners in order to support them, their families, and fight for their release. Due to the lack of public prison records, information must be obtained through family members and inside sources. Once verified, AAPP assists political prisoners and their families with basic necessities such as food and medicine. The group even provides financial support towards education for the children of political prisoners.
AAPP’s international work is focused on five areas: lobbying and working with governments and the UN, publishing reports, sharing data with advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, media work, and campaigning for the release of political prisoners.
Even after release, political prisoners face many challenges. They are often followed by Burmese Military Intelligence and their network of spies to discourage further political activities. Arbitrary arrest and harassment of family and friends are common. Many are denied job opportunities and education, and are forced to seek exile in neighboring countries. With much international media attention now on Burma, we can hope that ex-political prisoners and all people of Burma can soon participate in the political process without the threat of arrest.
On January 13, the day after our meeting with AAPP, hundreds of political prisoners were reportedly released from prison’s across Burma. Unlike previous releases, this one included high profile political prisoners like Min Ko Naing, leader of the 1988 student uprising. Although this is surely a large milestone for AAPP, their work is not done. The exact number of political prisoners still imprisoned remains unknown and until the last one is freed, the international community must continue to support the work of AAPP.