Sunday, December 20, 2009

U.S. lawmakers demand Burma free detained American

by Mungpi
Saturday, 19 December 2009 10:40

New Delhi (Mizzima) - More than 50 U.S. lawmakers have urged Burma’s military rulers to immediately release detained Burmese-born American Kyaw Zaw Lwin, also known as Nyi Nyi Aung.

Fifty-three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, in a letter addressed to Burma’s military leader Senior General Than Shwe, on Thursday called for the release of the American, who was arrested on September 3rd at Rangoon’s international airport.

“We urge you in the strongest possible terms to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Aung and allow him to return to the United States,” the U.S. Congressmen told Than Shwe in the letter.

Led by Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Frank Wolf, Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, the lawmakers said the real reason behind the trial, despite government legal pretexts, is “his longstanding non-violent activities in support of freedom and democracy in Burma.”

Beth Swanke, the international counsel for Nyi Nyi Aung in Washington, told Mizzima that the charges are a “sham” and are motivated by the fact that he is an activist advocating for democracy and human rights in Burma.

Following his arrest, in late September, the Burmese junta’s mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper accused the Burmese-American of violating various national security laws including instigating violence and planting explosions.

But in early October, when Nyi Nyi Aung was formally charged at a court inside Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, the previous accusations were dropped. Instead, he was charged with the new offenses of fraud and forgery of a Burmese national identity card and illegally possessing foreign currency.

Speaking to Mizzima by telephone, Swanke denied the charges, arguing, “Nyi Nyi Aung has never committed such crimes. He holds a U.S. passport and does not need a Burmese identity card. And he was arrested even before he could declare his foreign currency at the customs desk.”

Nyi Nyi Aung was a student activist taking part in the popular democracy uprising in 1988. He was forced to flee to the Thai-Burmese border along with fellow student activists when the military brutally cracked down on the uprising.

He continued his activism while in Thailand but later migrated to Maryland in the United States, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen.

Swanke said her client was attempting to visit his mother, who is suffering from cancer and is serving a jail term for her participation in the September 2007 monk-led protests, which was brutally crushed by the military.

She said there is concern for Nyi Nyi Aung, as he had reportedly been on hunger strike since December 4th, demanding equal treatment for political prisoners inside the prison.

But his defense counsel on Friday told Mizzima that the Burmese-American had stopped his hunger strike protest and was produced before the court, where a prosecution witness was heard.

Nyan Win, one of his defense counsels, said the next court session is fixed for December 29.

Diplomatic repercussions

The congressmen, in their letter, warned Than Shwe that arresting and charging an American at this time would damage diplomatic relations with the U.S.

The U.S., which has long imposed sanctions against Burma’s military rulers, in September announced a new policy of direct engagement with Burma’s generals while maintaining the existing sanctions.

As a first step, the U.S. sent a delegation to Burma in November to hold talks with Than Shwe as well as detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“The detention of an American citizen under these circumstances has caused alarm among many members of the United States Congress, and raises serious doubts about your [the Burmese] government's willingness to improve relations,” contend the lawmakers.

“We believe that the way to move forward for Burma and for our bilateral relations is to release all political prisoners, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and begin the process of genuine political reconciliation before next year’s elections,” the congressmen added.

According to the Thailand-based Assistant Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), there are more than 2,000 political prisoners languishing in jails across the country.

Jared Genser, President of the U.S. law firm Freedom Now, in a press release on Friday welcomed the U.S. lawmakers’ intervention, saying the Burmese military junta should be clear that “the United States will first look to the treatment of one of its own citizens in assessing the junta’s willingness to engage in dialogue.”