Myanmar reforms leave political prisoners behind

By Todd Pitman

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 9 2012 10:02 p.m. MDT

In this April 26, 2012 photo, Myanmar San Myint, mother of former student activist Aye Aung, cries during an interview in Yangon, Myanmar. In a remote concrete prison a three-day bus ride from home, Aye Aung spends each day as he has for nearly 14 years - a prisoner of conscience all but forgotten by the world. Although Myanmar's military-backed government has released hundreds of well-known dissidents over the past year as part of a startling series of reforms that have earned it lavish praise and an easing of sanctions, rights advocates say hundreds more like Aye Aung remain wrongfully locked away - their cases in danger of being forgotten amid rising hope for a more open, democratic nation. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar — In a remote prison in northwest Myanmar, Aye Aung wakes up each day as he has for nearly 14 years — alone in a dark cell on a wooden plank, a prisoner of conscience all but forgotten by the world.

For hours, the former student activist meditates and reads the books his father brings from afar every other month. But mostly, he lives in the mind-numbing boredom of captivity. Now 36, he has never seen a cell phone, never surfed the Internet, never married or had children.

Although Myanmar's military-backed government has released hundreds of well-known dissidents over the past year as part of a startling series of reforms that have earned it lavish praise and an easing of sanctions, rights advocates say hundreds more remain wrongfully locked away — their cases in danger of being forgotten amid rising hope for a more open, democratic nation.

"If this government is really changing, why have they not freed my son?" asked his mother, San Myint, as tears slid down her cheeks during an interview in Yangon.

"He's done nothing wrong," the visibly shaken 66-year-old told The Associated Press at her home, where one wall is adorned with a prominent picture of a youthful Aye Aung smiling broadly as he plays guitar beside a friend. "It's cruel and unfair. We just want him to come home."

Aye Aung's troubles began in late 1998, when he was arrested and sentenced months later to a 59-year prison term for his role in a pro-democracy student movement. He had distributed pamphlets and participated in a rare public protest, both of which were deemed by authorities a threat to state security.

His sentence has since been halved, but he still must serve about 15 more years. Until then, he remains incarcerated in the Kalay prison of Myanmar's distant northwest, a three-day bus ride from his family's Yangon home. His parents say he suffers from stomach problems and sporadic bouts of malaria, and medical treatment in the prison is poor.

Myanmar, meanwhile, is moving on.

Global investors are lining up to do business. Tourists are arriving in droves. Foreign dignitaries jet in every few days to discuss a brighter future. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Western nations during a visit this month to ease sanctions further and boost aid.

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