The Burma Political Prisoners Assistance Act, which was voted out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously on June 19th, would provide critical on-going assistance to imprisoned journalists and civil society organizations in Myanmar working to secure their release, PEN America said in a statement today.

The measure, sponsored by Representatives Andy Levin (D-MI) and Ann Wagner (R-MO) as H.R. 2327, addresses the 331 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Myanmar at the end of April 2019, and the on-going repression of free speech. It condemns the climate of fear and self-censorship created by arbitrary imprisonment and violent attacks on journalists, such as the 2018 PEN/Barbey  Freedom to Write  honorees Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, as well as the jailing of peaceful protestors and those who speak publicly about their experiences as child soldiers. The binding measure requires the U.S. Secretary of State to provide continued assistance to current and former prisoners and the organizations that support them.

“While we celebrate last month’s release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo following their pardon, it is important to note they have not been officially exonerated and there has been no apology or explanation for their unjust imprisonment,” said Thomas O. Melia, PEN America’s Washington Director. “The fight for a free press in Myanmar continues. This proposal by Mr. Levin and Mrs. Wagner keeps pressure on the National League for Democracy government to uphold their unfulfilled promises to allow a free and independent press.”

Following Myanmar’s historic 2015 election, observers held high hopes that press freedom would substantially widen under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). However, arrests and harassment of journalists, peaceful protesters, and those whose speech the government dislikes continues. According to the Myanmar freedom of expression organization Athan, 44 journalists and 142 activists have been charged since 2016 under a range of laws used to stifle speech. The repression of speech in Myanmar occurs alongside conflict and atrocities in Rakhine State and several other ethnic states, and suggests a government cover-up of damaging information. Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in 2017 in relation to their reporting on the massacre of ten Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din in Rakhine State. Although their reporting helped pressure the army into admitting the existence of a mass grave holding the bodies of the ten victims, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison before their release as part of a mass pardon by President Win Myint in May 2019. PEN America and many others advocated consistently on their behalf—more than fifty human rights organizations joined in our call for the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

Working in partnership with PEN Myanmar and other civil society organizations, PEN America continues to campaign for reform of the legal environment for freedom of expression and association, using our December 2015 report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, as a basis for advocacy. We support Representative Levin and Representative Wagner’s Burma Political Prisoners Act, and strongly encourage other legslators to vote in support of the law.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Suzanne Trimel, Media Relations Consultant, [email protected]