YANGON: Amnesty International on Thursday urged Myanmar to release nearly 100 “prisoners of conscience” ahead of landmark November polls, accusing the former junta-run nation of returning to “old ways” of repression.
After receiving widespread international praise for ending decades of outright military rule in 2011 and launching reforms, President Thein Sein’s government has been criticized for backsliding on human rights.
A violent crackdown at a March protest by students demanding changes to an education bill particularly raised fears of a return to the tactics of suppression used under military rule.
There are at least 91 “prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Myanmar”, Amnesty International said in a report released on Thursday.
“Authorities have intensified a chilling crackdown on freedom of expression over the past year,” said Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Myanmar Researcher in a statement.
The rights group urged the immediate release of these prisoners, including dozens of student protesters still detained for trial near the central town of Letpadan.
Of the 81 students facing court proceedings, some 54 are being held in prison, according to Hla Myo Myint, a lawyer for the group who said an application for bail for those still behind bars was pending.
“The students are not in good health. They haven’t had proper treatment in the prison,” he told Agence France-Presse, adding that holding them while the trial was ongoing was “like punishing them in advance.”
A New Zealand bar manager is also among the list of prisoners after he was jailed for two-and-a-half years in March for “insulting religion” by using a Buddha image to promote a cheap drinks night.
Surging Buddhist nationalism and religious violence has sparked international concern in the country with fears growing over the abuse of religious sentiment in the current election campaign.