Many of the 73 political prisoners released recently by Myanmar had engaged in acts of torture and murder. As the country undergoes a fragile transition from military rule, it must debate whether releasing them as political prisoners actually absolves them of their past crimes.
When President Thein Sein’s administration released 73 political prisoners on 23 July, questions began to emerge about the eventual fate of a member of the militant All Burma Student&’s Democratic Front (ABSDF) who remain behind bars.
The releases are evidence that the president intends to keep his promise made during a recent visit to the United Kingdom where he declared that there would be no more prisoners of conscience in Myanmar. However, what defines a political prisoner when they have engaged in acts of killing, perhaps even torture and murder, is a question that concerns the ABSDF member Than Gyoung, who is also known as Myint Soe or Sao Khun Kyaw.
He is accused of killing 39 fellow students between 1991 and 1992, some of them executed after being accused of being military spies and others were tortured to death while being interrogated. These accusations raise difficult questions about the actions committed by militant student groups in the struggle against military rule, revealing some of the murkier internal politics of the pro-democracy resistance movement.
“All those arrested for political beliefs are accepted as political prisoners. But we cannot accept and forgive the acts of violating law and human rights. Those who committed crimes must face the punishment according to the law. We can’t mix them up,” said Kyaw Htwe, a leader with the opposition National League of Democracy.
Thirty-nine out of 73 prisoners recently released belonged to the All Burma Student&’s Democratic Front (ABSDF), a group led by students who fled their homes to take up arms against the military dictatorship, after the brutal and bloody crackdown of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Many joined forces with various armed ethnic groups who were fighting for regional autonomy.
Than Gyoung, who remains in Thayawady prison, is said to have gone underground after the 1988 protests and eventually emerged as leader of the military faction of the ABSDF North. His unit was first based in Kachin State, where between 1989 to 1992 it is claimed he was responsible for the murder of dozens of students who were accused of being "enemy spies" in Pagyoung and Laisin camps, according to ABSDF members who escaped.
Among those killed in Kachin State in 1992 was Htun Aung Kyaw, the chairman of ABSDF&’s Northern Region. During the 1988 democracy movement he was a prominent student leader in Mandalay, and vice chairman of the All Burma Federation of Students Union.
"The crimes Than Gyoung committed are very severe. He couldn’t be regarded as a political prisoner. If so, the dignity of other political prisoners can be ruined. Whatever political or human right, such severe crime is an unforgivable act. It happened 20 years ago, but we are still suffering from this incident," said San San Aye, the daughter of U Sein, ex-student of Hmaing Ya Pyae and the publisher of Deedoke Journal, who was tortured to death.
San San Aye opened a case with the police on 19 August, 2012 to investigate her father&’s killing. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is reportedly investigating Than Gyoung but further details have not yet been revealed. Htun Aung Kyaw&’s family has also opened a separate case in Mandalay to investigate his killing.
After the Kachin Independence Organisation signed a ceasefire with the government in 1994, Than Gyoung defected, emerging as a commander of the No. 241 Brigade of Shan State Army where he was involved in various battles including Panmongsone in 2002 and Lwetainglyan in 2005. He was arrested at Namkham, in Shan State, on Jan 1, 2006 and was sentenced for 11 charges, including treason. He has since been serving a life sentence.
Some have suggested that the ABSDF killings were motivated by internal power struggles within the organisation and the ABSDF itself announced in May this year that it is carrying out an internal investigation into what happened 20 years ago. But such quests for truth also raise difficult questions about the use of torture by the insurgencies and how there can be justice when such crimes were committed by the military as well.
“Everyone knows how Than Gyoung treated us cruelly. How can we recognise one who has committed brutal torture and killing as a political prisoner? But if they do regard him as a political prisoner, how do we regard the military intelligence who regularly tortured political prisoners like him?” said Soe Lin, an ABSDF member who escaped.
Although Than Gyoung was arrested as a member of the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) for various charges including treason and violence, no action has been brought against him for the murder of fellow ABSDF students. He was included in the list which the RCSS/SSA presented to the political prisoner scrutiny committee and various activist groups that have been advocating for the release of political prisoners believe that this takes precedence.
"His other criminal case is a different matter. The reason of his imprisonment was political case, he was named as a political prisoner. He is now facing life sentence and other punishments. Than Gyoung is not left alone in jail and 104 political prisoners are still behind bars according to the list of the committee. All are demanded to be released," said Myint Aung from the Ex-political Prisoners Group.
Ye Lin, one of the tortured members of the ABSDF (North), said that Than Gyoung was one of the insurgents who fought the military regime after 1988 and so accepts him as a political prisoner. And he believed that if Than Gyoung was freed from the prison, they would be able to solve these problems and if necessary bring new charges against him. The majority of the fellow ABSDF members originally sentenced to death together with Than Gyoung were released on 23 July but he and two others are still being held in Thayawady Prison. The case has led to ongoing debates on social media and in local news outlets as many believe that releasing him as a political prisoner would absolve him from crimes committed under the ABSDF, acts which tarnished the reputation of the student movement.
This may be one of many difficult yet necessary debates to emerge about Myanmar’s past and pro-democracy struggle as the country undergoes a fragile transition from military rule.

Eleven Media Group/ANN