Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Burmese-American Awaits Verdict in Myanmar Case

The New York Times


February 9, 2010

Burmese-American Awaits Verdict in Myanmar Case


BANGKOK — At last count there were more than 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar, according to human rights groups that track the opaque workings of the penal system in that country, formerly known as Burma. Among them is Nyi Nyi Aung, who spent years campaigning for Burmese democracy in exile before obtaining American citizenship.

On his fifth trip back, in September, he was arrested. On Wednesday, a court in Myanmar is scheduled to announce a verdict on charges of forgery, possession of undeclared foreign currency and failure to renounce Myanmar citizenship. He could face 12 years in prison.


The case comes at an awkward time for the United States, and depending on the outcome could complicate American efforts to try to engage Myanmar’s military junta after years of minimal contacts.


But beyond the politics of the case is the personal journey of Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung.


At the time of Myanmar’s seminal pro-democracy uprising in 1988, he was a teenager and had helped to organize high school students. He fled with many other organizers when the military began its crackdown.


He came to the United States in 1993 as a refugee, earned a computer science degree from Purdue University and worked as a technician at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.


But he was restless, said his fiancée, Wa Wa Kyaw. “He really, really wants to do everything for freedom and democracy in Burma,” she said.


Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung, who was born as Kyaw Zaw Lwin, shuttled between Maryland and Mae Sot, Thailand, a border town where many Burmese exiles are based. And after he received American citizenship in 2002, he began visiting Myanmar.


Each time, he obtained a visa from Myanmar’s government, his lawyers said. But the last visit came after the junta publicly singled him out, accusing him of inciting unrest. He was arrested after he landed in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, Myanmar’s main city, on Sept. 3.


“If any of us had known he was returning, we would have stopped him,” said Aung Din, an acquaintance who is the executive director of the United States Campaign for Burma in Washington, a group that promotes the end of military rule in Myanmar.


Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung had kept his trip secret, even from his fiancée. The few he had told tried to dissuade him, friends say. They speculated that he was hoping to visit his mother, Daw San San Tin, a political prisoner who has thyroid cancer. She is serving five years in a remote prison in central Myanmar for involvement in an uprising in 2007.


“He felt guilty for his mother’s arrest,” said Bo Kyi, co-founder of Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that tracks the plight of jailed dissidents in Myanmar and organizes aid for them and their families. “In his heart, maybe he was suffering a lot.”


The family had no involvement in politics before helping organize the 1988 uprising, said Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung’s only sibling, Ko Ko Aung. But for that, and further activism, they have paid dearly. Mr. Ko Ko Aung is in exile in Thailand. Two cousins are in prison for their involvement in a 2007 uprising, one of whom was sentenced to 65 years.


Lawyers for Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung rejected the charges against him. They said that he did not have a forged identity card, that he was arrested before clearing customs and thus never had the opportunity to declare any foreign currency, and that the Myanmar Embassy in Washington never instructed Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung to renounce his Myanmar citizenship.


In December, 53 members of Congress sent a letter to the leader of Myanmar’s junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, seeking Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung’s immediate release and calling his detention and trial “inconsistent with both Burmese and international law.”


Members of Congress and the consular affairs section of the State Department have been doing a “wonderful job” pressing for his release, said Ms. Wa Wa Kyaw, who works as a nurse in Maryland. But she lamented the lack of higher-level American involvement.


Human rights campaigners say Washington has not done enough.


“Activists are frustrated by the lack of noise from the U.S. government when he is a U.S. citizen,” said Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.


“We’ve been following his case very closely,” Richard Mei, a spokesman for the United States Embassy in Yangon, said Saturday in a telephone interview.


Reading from a prepared statement, he said, “The United States is working through diplomatic channels to achieve an overall positive outcome to the case.”



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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