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feature story - Executive Director Alex Wagner Op-Ed: "The Arrest and Torture of an American in Burma (And Why You Never Heard of Him)"

october 26th, 2009

October 26, 2009

The Arrest and Torture of an American in Burma (And Why You Never Heard of Him)

By Alex Wagner

While I was sitting in a Congressional House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Burma on a beautiful fall day last week, a Burmese-born American citizen who happens to live thirty minutes from Capitol Hill was languishing in Rangoon's notorious Insein prison. The Burmese courts have charged this American, Kyaw Zaw Lwin, with fraud and forgery, though the ruling regime's official mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, has also accused him of terrorist activities. Kyaw Zaw Lwin's defense counsel has said that his client was physically tortured during his detention and denied any allegations that he was plotting to incite unrest. Last week, his trial began.

So where is his rescue from Bill Clinton, who so thrillingly swooped in to extricate the Americans being held in North Korea? Given the announcement of the new U.S. policy of engagement with Burma just four weeks ago, Kyaw Zaw Lwin could be waiting quite a while.

With all the media attention paid to the North Korean detention (and subsequent release) of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the lack of coverage of an American citizen being held and allegedly tortured by a rogue regime is shocking. Equally so is the administration's apparent lack of focus on the matter.

On September 12, State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly reported, "We have reached out to [the Burmese] government to get additional information [on Kyaw Zaw Lwin]," adding that no further details were available. Nearly six weeks later, during the Congressional hearing on Burma, Kurt Campbell, the Obama Administration's newly appointed Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was asked what developments had occurred in the case of Kyaw Zaw Lwin. He responded that there weren't any updates.

Is this just part of the cost of engagement? In exchange for Chinese financing of American debt, the U.S. has taken on an increasingly soft position on China's human rights record, and on October 5th, the President declined to meet with the Dalai Lama, the perpetual thorn in Beijing's side.

Last week, the administration was mum on the abduction and suspected execution of Uighur dissidents in China's Xinjiang Province. And in the case of Kyaw Zaw Lwin, the State Department's actions -- or, perhaps, inactions -- thus far might suggest the sort of concessions the U.S. is prepared to make as engagement with Burma begins.

A leader of what came to be known as the 88 Students Generation, -- a pro-democracy movement inside Burma that held massive, student-led demonstrations in 1988, and ended with the killing of over 3,000 protestors at the hands of the military -- Kyaw Zaw Lwin was granted asylum in the U.S. in the wake of the uprising. He moved here in 1993, and became a citizen, relocating as Burmese exiles have to the Washington, DC area, where he became friends with my grandmother.

Some thirty years earlier, this is where she and my mother, also seeking refuge from the repressive Burmese military government, settled upon arrival in the States. As anyone in D.C. can tell you, Washington is a small town, and it is especially so if you are part of the community of Burmese exiles clustered in and around the Beltway. There is the local monastery where everyone pays his respects to the monks, there is the Asian grocery store where you can buy imported pickled tea leaves and smelly durian fruit, and the Burmese restaurant downtown that makes a decent noodle soup. There is also an activist exile network, populated by Burmese who have watched, helplessly for the most part, as their country and its people have been stomped into the ground by a regime intent on maintaining control of the country's rich natural resources at all costs.

From time to time, you see them at rallies in front of the Burmese Embassy or the United Nations, armed with homemade signs and bullhorns, hoping to get arrested or to make it onto the local evening news. This isn't to disparage these protests, it is simply that -- as any Burmese will tell you -- the country's decades-long struggle for freedom almost never makes headlines. For the U.S., identifying the strategic imperative of addressing the situation in Burma is challenging. To them, it appears merely that a once-prosperous Southeast Asian country has fallen into the hands of a particularly despicable group of armed military men, known as the State Peace and Development Committee (SPDC). The SPDC's actions have been morally reprehensible, but for an American audience facing multiple wars, terrorist attacks and economic freefall, well, there have been other things to worry about.

Kyaw Zaw Lwin's participation in the human rights movement continued after his escape from Burma: He co-founded the Burmese Students Committee for Social Affairs, began working as a research assistant for Refugees International, and became a leading member of the Free Burma's Political Prisoners Now Campaign. He took a town house in suburban Maryland, bought a car and became engaged to a fellow exile and activist, a registered nurse named Wa Wa Kyaw. My grandmother, a fiery advocate for Burmese democracy even well into her 80s, often needed rides to the monthly activist meetings and plenary sessions – and when she requested transportation, it was Kyaw Zaw Lwin, a soft spoken, dutiful emissary, who would pick her up in his car.

In late spring of this year, Free Burma's Political Prisoners Now spearheaded a campaign with several advocacy organizations to gather 888,888 signatures (the number 8 is particularly auspicious in Burmese culture, as well as a reference to the uprisings of 1988) to protest the incarceration of nearly 2,100 political prisoners inside Burmese jails. Though the campaign did not meet its goal, nearly 680,000 signatures were collected. The organizers of the campaign hoped to deliver the signatures to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has repeatedly called on the Burmese regime to release all political prisoners.

One of the emissaries chosen to deliver these signatures was Kyaw Zaw Lwin – because he had been incarcerated for political activities following the 1988 protests, because his mother is serving a five-year jail term for political activities inside Burma, and because his sister has been sentenced to 65 years in prison for her role in the 2007 pro-democracy protests inside the country.

Secretary Ban's office declined to receive Kyaw Zaw Lwin and his petition, and the signatures were instead handed off to Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari's office without much fanfare, although Kyaw Zaw Lwin did make a statement at a small press conference that day: "My message to Mr. Ban Ki-moon is simple," he said. "Your words show you take this issue seriously. But now I want to see what action you will take to secure the release of my family and all Burma's political prisoners."

Eight weeks later, the Burmese courts extended the house arrest of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's most famous political prisoner. And several weeks after that, Kyaw Zaw Lwin himself was thrown into jail.

He had been back to the country several times before and had entered with little problem, but on Septemer 3rd, upon arrival at Rangoon's airport, he was seized. Little has been heard of him since. On September 24, the New Light of Myanmar reported, "Steps are being taken... against Kyaw Zaw Lwin, a citizen of a foreign country who, out of disloyalty to his motherland and people, planned to instigate unrest and launch terrorist attacks.

"His family has had no contact with him since his arrest. "There's lots of red tape," said Wa Wa Kyaw. "His aunts, who live in Rangoon, tried to meet with him but the Burmese authorities told him that since he's an American citizen, the visit has to go though the U.S. Embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have put in a request, but it hasn't been granted."

For decades, Burma's government has been maligned for widespread corruption, repression of basic freedoms, state-sponsored violence targeting ethnic tribes, and torture of civilians. Because of this, the SPDC is seen as one of the most brutal regimes in the world. It is also -- so far -- one of the most intractable. For decades, US dialogue with the SPDC has been non-existent.

Given the myriad abuses perpetrated by the Burmese regime on its people, the U.S. has enjoyed the moral high ground in refusing to engage with the brutal junta, but its approach has yielded few, if any, results in the intervening years.

Obama's new Burma strategy is part of a broader policy of Speaking With Friends and Enemies of Freedom alike: it treads a careful line between "constructive engagement" with the regime and maintaining broad economic sanctions. It's unclear whether this will yield any more tangible results than non-engagement has, and this hasn't been lost on the Obama administration. "We expect engagement with Burma to be a long, slow, painful and step-by-step process," Campbell said during his House testimony.

Critics say that engagement may, in fact, damage the U.S.'s broader foreign policy objectives. During the hearings last week, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican representative from California and a longtime advocate of the Bush-era policy of diplomatic freeze-out, was unrelenting: "With all due respect, we know all about Burma. It's not an unknown quantity. It has a vicious gangster regime, one of the most despicable regimes in this planet," he said. "We are saying that they are a legitimate government to sit down with. They are not."

Campbell was quick to emphasize that the US government deplores actions taken by the SPDC and that relaxing of sanctions is off the table until concrete and substantive reform is in place. Dialogue, though, is a two way street: for partners from whom we are seeking to gain something, concessions must be made.

Meanwhile, coverage from inside Kyaw Zaw Lwin's trial reported that the prosecution has called two witnesses who were, "not convincing and vague." Thirteen more witnesses for the prosecution are yet to testify. As in the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the Burmese courts will reach a guilty verdict and that the punishment will far outweigh the trumped-up crime. Given the new US strategy of high-level diplomatic dialogue with the regime, one could speculate that perhaps the US is negotiating on the sidelines for Kyaw Zaw Lwin's release, much as they did with John William Yettaw, the American man arrested and sentenced by Burmese courts to four years of hard labor for an unsanctioned visit to Aung San Suu Kyi.

But unlike Yettaw -- a mentally-ill man from Missouri with no connection to the Burmese opposition movement -- the SPDC has significant grievances with Kyaw Zaw Lwin. For those Burmese who have left the country and emigrated overseas, working with exile opposition groups to unseat the generals from their perches of power, the regime reserves a specific brand of vitriol. They -- Kyaw Zaw Lwin, and my grandmother, too -- are seen as traitors, pawns of the West. In the eyes of the regime, they are enemies of the state.

The prisoner's fiancée, Wa Wa Kyaw, says advocacy efforts have been difficult: "I am working full time, and I can't quit my job," she says. "I have to stay supporting the family -- Kyaw Zaw Lwin has five family members in prison in five different locations in Burma. His aunts need financial support to travel and visit everyone, and my nephew is also in prison for activities during the 2007 protests."

The innocents in Burma, hostage to a brutal junta for nearly five decades, seem to be locked in a tragic cycle of repression, uprise, protest, and defeat. Could renewed U.S. engagement with the SPDC win freedom for Kyaw Zaw Lwin, an American citizen wrongly imprisoned in a foreign country? Of course, but whether our government will choose to secure it is anyone's guess.

LINK: "The Arrest and Torture of an American in Burma (And Why You Never Heard of Him)" (Politics Daily)

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