Myanmar Reinstates Family Visits to Prisoners to End Ban Started During Pandemic

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Family members and colleagues wait to welcome the released prisoners from Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar 1 August 2023. (Photo: AP)

BANGKOK (AP) — Military-ruled Myanmar on Tuesday allowed prisoners to have family visitors from outside, a right that had been suspended for 3 and a half years because of the coronavirus pandemic, the military’s information office and prison officials said.

The rule allowing visitors carries detailed conditions, but it’s the first opportunity for many of the thousands of political detainees who have been locked up for opposing the military’s 2021 seizure of power to meet with their family members.

Visitors must be able to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccinations and a household relationship to the prisoner being met. Further documentation is required from the visitors’ local administration offices and police precincts.

A family member of a prisoner convicted of incitement and high treason for protesting military rule told The Associated Press that she was allowed to meet her son for about 20 minutes in a large room after waiting for about two hours with more than 100 other visitors. She visited a prison in Thayarwaddy township in the Bago region, about 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Yangon, the country’s biggest city.

She said she was happy to see her son again after more than a year and to be able to bring him medicine and money since she last saw him at his trial in August last year.

Visitors had to speak to the prisoners through two wire mesh dividers about a foot (30 centimeters) apart, the woman said.

She spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern about being identified since the military prefers to be the sole source of information on sensitive subjects.

The mother said she was told by the prison authorities that the inmates would be allowed to receive visitors once a month. Before the pandemic, they were allowed to meet their families at least twice a month.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that keeps detailed tallies of arrests and casualties linked to the repression of the military government, said that 25,337 people had been arrested since the 2021 takeover, and 19,616 of them, including ousted national leader Aung San Suu Kyi, were still in detention as of Tuesday.

Tun Kyi, a senior member of the Former Political Prisoners Society, a mutual support group, said any easing of prison conditions should be regarded as an effort by the military government to score political points and ease international pressure. Many Western nations apply economic and diplomatic sanctions on the country’s ruling generals because of their 2021 takeover and record of human rights abuses.

“There is nothing to be happy or welcome about this case, which is intended to ease international pressure,” Tun Kyi said.

Family visitation rights were suspended after the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020. Most sectors of society have gradually reduced or dropped testing requirements and other virus-fighting measures since 2022, but family visits to prisoners have remained banned.

Although prisons in Myanmar, as elsewhere, saw the coronavirus spread easily because of crowding and poor hygienic conditions, the continuation of the ban on visits had been widely seen as meant to demoralize political prisoners and highlight the punishment awaiting those who challenge military rule. Protests against the army’s takeover were initially nonviolent, but after they were suppressed with deadly force, an armed resistance movement arose, which now operates throughout much of the country.

The total number of prisoners held in Myanmar, not only political detainees, isn’t publicly known. There are about 66 prisons and 48 labor camps in Myanmar. Prison Department officials from Yangon, Magway Region, and Mon State told the AP on Tuesday that the visits have already begun. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release information.

The military’s information office said in a statement sent to journalists that in-person meetings with inmates at the prisons have been allowed to begin, but visitors must have been vaccinated twice for coronavirus and must be included in the same official household lists as the prisoners. It said other details of the visiting rules are posted on signboards in front of the prisons.

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BY GRANT PECK Associated Press