Rioting for Rule of Law – Prison Amnesties and Riots in Myanmar

Blog post first posted at

Regular readers of the Tea Circle are likely well-aware that more than 23,000 prisoners were recently released on amnesties granted in connection with the celebration of Myanmar New Year in April. In this brief piece we raise some critical questions about the presidential power to pardon.

In Myanmar, New Year amnesties are a common practice and the releases are an annual feature of news reporting. This year the amnesties were accompanied by violence. The amnesties took place in three rounds on April 17th, 26th and May 7th. As the media presented joyful accounts of reunions with family members and expressions of relief at the prospect of freedom, unrest developed in the prisons. The unrest escalated into riots in seven prisons across the country on May 8th. On May 9th,the riot in Shwe Bo Prison came to a fatal conclusion after officials went in with tear gas and guns, killing four prisoners and wounding two.

video streamed live on Facebook via an illegal mobile phone from Shwe Bo Prison on May 8thcaught our attention. It features prisoners wandering around outside their cells cheering and shouting: “We should be released like Moe Aung Yin – our cause, our cause”. In the slogan, their call for clemency was accompanied by the slogan associated with the pro-democracy movement that fought the former military regime and whose representatives from the NLD (National League for Democracy) now govern the country.

Statements from the President’s office declared that the amnesties were given on humanitarian grounds with priority given to women and juveniles as well as elderly, sick, and disabled prisoners. The prisoners were protesting that the amnesties were not given on a systematic basis. They called for a fair and transparent amnesty practice; they called for rule of law.  From their perspective, the selection and release of people such as Moe Aung Yin, a well-known Myanmar actor, and the Reuters journalists seemed arbitrary or at least not to fit the humanitarian criteria laid out. This situation is doubly ironic. Prisoners — those deemed criminal law breakers by the state — call for rule of law and stand up against the arbitrary expression of power and they do so echoing the protest slogans (“Our cause, our cause!”) previously used by the opposition movement as they stood up against the military regime.

After the riots, opposition parties raised a critique similar to the grievances expressed by the prisoners in a joint press conference by the National Unity Party, the National Political Alliance League and the USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) on June 5th. While echoing the prisoners’ critique of the arbitrariness of the amnesties, the opposition parties claimed that the lack of thorough investigation of which prisoners to release would lead to dangerous criminals bring released. As a reply, a spokesperson from the President’s Office informed them that the amnesty was aimed at minor drug cases and considered appeals submitted to the President and the State Counselor. While this explains how famous cases of actors and journalists got included in what was presented as an amnesty on humanitarian grounds, it confirms the lack of transparency that makes the selection of prisoners included in the amnesties appear arbitrary.

Our research in Myanmar is about legacies of detention. We are especially interested in the way prison is experienced and the politics of imprisonment. The amnesties and the prisoners’ response to them speak to these themes in interesting ways. Our research so far has made us aware that prisoners serving long sentences in Myanmar historically came to look to amnesties as a potential route to release. Over the years, many prisoners have been released via the presidential pardon rather than on their court-mandated release date. But amnesties create uncertainty. They are at the discretion of the President’s Office and the prisoner never knows whether he or she will be on the list. So, while the joyous reunions at the prison gate may make amnesties appear as overwhelmingly positive, they are more ambivalent in their broader effects when seen from the perspective of prisoners either anticipating amnesty or left behind.

We can also raise critical questions about the power to pardon and the practice of amnesties from the perspective of rule of law. In effect, amnesties are at odds with the logic meant to govern release of prisoners in a criminal justice system based on rule of law: they are arbitrary rather than systematic, discretionary rather than mandatory. Amnesties can be seen as a demonstration of executive power trumping judicial power and may have an undermining effect on the long-term efforts to transform the judicial system and bring it into line with international norms and standards for justice delivery. This is ironic given the emphasis the current administration has otherwise given to the rule of law.

Presidential pardons of this kind are perfectly legal, and relatively commonplace across the world; they serve as a gesture that emphasises executive power and reminds the judiciary that in certain situations it is subject to, rather than independent of, the executive. Complicating the situation in Myanmar is the uneasy balance of power between the NLD and the military that has the military controlling important government ministries, including those responsible for justice and prisons. It may even be the case that some aspects of the recent amnesties (for example the release of the Reuters journalists) can be seen as a kind of victory for the NLD as they were able to legitimately usurp authority from the military-controlled ministry formally responsible for the administration of sentencing and release.

Critical questions can also be raised about whether amnesties are a good solution to overcrowding, a common criticism of Myanmar’s prisons. While amnesties of this size do contribute to decreasing the population of Myanmar’s overcrowded prisons, they do not solve the systemic issue of over-population. Relatively large numbers of prisoners have been granted amnesties for years, but the population keeps increasing. Alternative strategies for decarceration are needed. One promising initiative in this direction is the decriminalization of drug use through ongoing reform of drug laws. In this vein, most of the amnesties have been granted to prisoners with drug-related cases— a fact which also reflects that the majority of prisoners in Myanmar are imprisoned on such cases.

From a human rights perspective, one can ask whether pardoning is a practice that should be encouraged or frowned upon. On the one hand, the small contribution towards decarceration might ease the pains of imprisonment for those released as well as those left behind. On the other hand, it undermines the justice system’s internal logic and adds to the uncertainty felt by prisoners. We might also ask whether, if someone can be released on humanitarian grounds in celebration of a holiday, there are really grounds for keeping him or her confined in the first place. In our view, rather than relying on amnesties, Myanmar politicians should look to ways of reducing the use of imprisonment through diversion, fair and proportionate sentencing practices, the decriminalisation of petty offences, and the use of alternatives to imprisonment.

Liv S. Gaborit is a PhD fellow at Roskilde University and DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, currently she is a Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University. Her research focuses on experiences of imprisonment in Myanmar.

Andrew M. Jefferson is a prison scholar based at DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture. He specialises in ethnographic studies of prisons and prison reform processes in the global south focused especially on issues related to survival, governance and transition.