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feature story - Executive Director Alex Wagner Op-Ed: "The Curious Case of Nyi Nyi Aung"

march 25th, 2010

March 25, 2010

The Curious of Nyi Nyi Aung

By Alex Wagner

Six months ago, a man named Nyi Nyi Aung landed at the Yangon International Airport in Burma. He had come to Burma in the hopes of visiting his mother, who is currently in jail for pro-democracy activities and sick with cancer. Before he could clear customs, Aung's baggage cart was seized by airport personnel and he was told to come into their offices to answer some "personal questions." Although Aung has a background as a human rights activist, and was a prominent leader during Burma's 1988 uprising, he had broken no laws. Perhaps more importantly, Aung is also an American citizen, which should have provided some insurance against wrongful incarceration.

Once inside the airport offices, Aung said he was interrogated about his political activities and contacts by military security from both the Burmese Air Force and Navy. He was then handcuffed, blindfolded, and driven for several hours to an unknown destination. While in the car, Burmese police threatened to beat and kill him. When Aung was finally dropped off at an interrogation center, he was placed in a small, dark room, handcuffed to the table and kicked repeatedly while security officials grilled him on purported terrorist activities.

In an apparent attempt to tie him to illegal activities inside Burma, they demanded, Where are the C4 explosives? Where are you hiding the weapons? Where are the satellite phones? Aung, who claims he was innocent of any wrongdoing, answered only that he hoped for national reconciliation and a free, democratic Burma. Security forces were unrelenting in their interrogation, he said, and kept him awake for two weeks while torturing him and denying him food of any kind. On the 14th day, they let him take a shower.

Aung relayed these details to me over the phone this week from suburban Maryland, where he has finally returned after being held for more than six months in a Burmese jail. Because there was no evidence to support the government's initial terrorism charges, Aung was convicted on trumped-up charges of forging a national identity card, possessing undeclared foreign currency, and failing to renounce his Burmese citizenship when becoming an American citizen. For this, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor.

Last Friday, the Burmese government announced that they were giving Nyi Nyi Aung an early release because of their "friendship" with the U.S. government. While this gesture was certainly not lost on an administration that is attempting a policy of engagement with the Burmese military junta, one can safely say that no part of the Burmese treatment of Nyi Nyi Aung was in any way friendly. But it is perhaps also safe to say that the U.S. response to his abduction and incarceration wasn't exactly angry or contentious, either -- it wasn't much of anything, really. Neither the president nor the secretary of state released a statement after Aung's sentencing -- a pointed counter to Bill Clinton's televised airlift of imprisoned U.S. citizens Euna Lee and Laura Ling a few months earlier. The only response was a brief three line statement from State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley, who called Aung's sentencing "unjustified."

For the first 14 days of his incarceration, Aung told me, he felt "very alone." He had no contact with anyone from his family or from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. His thoughts, he said, went from being sure that, as a U.S. citizen, his release would be imminent, to fear that the U.S. government was powerless with the Burmese regime. Aung estimates that on the 18th or 19th day, a deputy from the U.S. Embassy was able to visit him, and assured him that they were "following his case" and that "requests had been filed."

Over the next few months, Aung estimates that consular officials visited him once a month, every two months, and sometimes, every 45 days. In the meantime, he was kept in solitary confinement. Because of his history as a human rights organizer, Burmese security apparently feared he would find a way to impart his knowledge to other political prisoners, so he was kept as far removed from the rest of the prison population as possible, oftentimes in pens reserved for security dogs. This did not deter him. As Aung says, "We just shouted to each other through the walls. Many of the prisoners are much younger than me, so I told them my thoughts about community organizing, about human rights and democracy. I was trying to train them, in a way."

When Aung tried to take up the case of Burma's estimated 2,100 political prisoners, U.S. Embassy officials told him "they were unable to discuss political issues." He would ask what, precisely, was being done for incarcerated activists, and their response, he says, was that they were trying, but "the Burmese regime was very difficult." According to Aung, the top U.S. Embassy official in Rangoon never visited him.

In the end, what may have secured Aung's release is a confluence of things. Several weeks ago, the Burmese junta announced its election law, which, among other things, requires the expulsion of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her party, the National League for Democracy, and excludes many pro democracy activists from running. The international community has responded to the junta's election law with overwhelming criticism. This law holds particular importance for the regime, which is intent on legitimizing its rule via elections scheduled for later this year.

The U.S. State Department, in the meantime, has found itself defending the efficacy of its engagement policy as the Burmese regime has, in recent months, increased persecution of dissidents, violent attacks on ethnic minorities, and shown an increasingly hostile attitude towards Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest. Nyi Nyi Aung's fiancee, Wa Wa Maw, publicly aired much of her frustration at the lack of progress on Aung's case in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. For a regime looking for a distraction and an administration hungry for a win (or just a decisive development on the international stage), perhaps the time for a backroom deal on Nyi Nyi Aung's freedom, 197 days later, had arrived.

When he learned of his impending freedom, Aung says he didn't feel much. "I might have gotten released, but all my colleagues, my family -- they are still in jail. I can't really be happy." And though Aung is thankful for efforts by the international community to secure his release, he still wonders, "I know the U.S. government has a lot of responsibilities, but I am an American citizen, too. Why is it that [Missouri resident] John Yettaw [who swam illegally across a lake to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi] was freed so quickly?" Aung further takes issue with current U.S.-Burma policy: "The U.S. keeps talking about carrots. How many Burmese lives will be lost before they get to the sticks?"

Since he arrived home, Aung has been seeking emergency medical attention for injuries incurred during his interrogation and incarceration. While in jail, Aung remained in considerable pain, and though he received injections of painkillers, Burmese prisons are notorious for transmitting deadly viruses (including Hepatitis and HIV) via contaminated needles. His fiancee has reported that so far tests have come back negative. Right now, she says, her primary focus is on applying for financial assistance to help pay for Aung's mounting medical bills, for which they have no health insurance. "He's in excruciating pain," she says. "I can see it in his face."

To make a contribution towards Nyi Nyi Aung's medical care, visit Freedom Now (please earmark the donation as "Nyi Nyi Aung Medical Care")

LINK: "The Curious Case of Nyi Nyi Aung" (Politics Daily)

FURTHER READING: "For democracy activist Nyi Nyi Aung, homecoming is bittersweet" (Wash. Post)

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

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