"Prison Is the Only Place where We Can Speak Freely"

Posters bearing images of Myanmar junta leader General Than Shwe are pierced onto the main gate of the Myanmar Embassy during a protest in New Delhi on March 19, held to denounce Myanmar's recently announced election law. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/ AFP-Getty Images)

Kyaw Zaw Lwin, sounding resolute and in good spirits, walked through Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Thursday a free man, after spending six months in a Burmese prison.

An American citizen, also known as Nyi Nyi Aung, he spoke briefly to journalists, saying, “I did not expect to be out so soon. I am really happy to be free, but it is not a deep happiness. I have family and friends who are still in jail in Burma.”

Nyi Nyi Aung was sentenced to hard labor on February 10 on charges of carrying a fake identification card and undeclared foreign currency, and for failing to give up his Burmese citizenship. The regime bars citizens from holding a foreign passport or multiple citizenship.

He was arrested in September 2009 at the international airport in Rangoon and accused of attempting to foment political unrest in Burma. He said he was tortured while in detention. He entered Burma to see his mother, San San Tin, who is in prison for her participation in the 2007 Saffron Revolution and is ill with thyroid cancer.

Nyi Nyi Aung said that he would continue to work for democracy in Burma as best he could from outside the country. He is among the 8888 Generation, a group comprised mainly of university students who took part in pro-democracy protests in August 1988. The demonstrations were crushed by the ruling junta, with an estimated 3,000 people killed. Many of the 8888 Generation now live in exile, but others remain incarcerated in Burma.

In a rueful aside, Nyi Nyi said, “In Burma, the jail is the only place where people can speak freely to each other. Outside it is much more difficult, unless you want to end up inside the prison.”

The New Light of Myanmar newspaper, a mouthpiece for the junta, said the government pardoned and deported Nyi Nyi Aung after giving "special consideration to bilateral friendship in accordance with the request made by the U.S. State Department" to free him.

On December 17, a bipartisan group of 53 Members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to junta leader Senior General Than Shwe seeking Nyi Nyi Aung's release. The junta did not give any reason for his release; however, analysts believe the timing is politically motivated.

Beth Schwanke, his lawyer, said, “It is clear that within the last week the junta has been under considerable international pressure because of its release of new, illegitimate election laws and the call for a Commission of Inquiry at the Human Rights Council.”

Schwanke said, “We're thrilled that Nyi Nyi has been released. However, it is important to not let his release distract from the larger picture. There are at least 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma.”

Nyi Nyi Aung has a degree in computer science from Purdue University and worked for the U.S. government at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His fiancee, Wa Wa Kyaw, works as a nurse in Maryland. Her impassioned plea for the United States to do more to secure Nyi Nyi's release was published last month in The Wall Street Journal.

The Obama administration on Thursday welcomed the release of Kyaw Zaw Lwin. State Department Acting Spokesman Gordon Duguid said at a news conference, “The United States has been working intensely with Burmese officials for some time to attain his release, and we welcome it. We assisted Mr. Lwin as appropriate and have informed his family of his departure from Burma.” 

The Burmese junta has a history of tactical prisoner release, timed to distract attention from ongoing rights abuses, or to deflect international condemnation for undemocratic policies. In February, National League for Democracy Vice-Chairman Tin Oo was released from house arrest, just days before U.N. human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana made his third visit to the country—a five day visit to various prisons, among other locations. He later released a report recommending that an international commission of inquiry should be established, to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma.

Aung Din, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, said Nyi Nyi Aung "shouldn't have been arrested from the beginning. We demand the release of all political prisoners in Burma, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi."

Since the 2007 Saffron Revolution, more than 1,100 political activists have been arrested and remain in detention. During 2009, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, 264 political prisoners were arrested, 129 activists were sentenced, 266 were released, and 71 prisoners were transferred. Year after year, the number of political prisoners in Burma has increased. As of December 31, there were 2,177 political prisoners in Burma, 15 more than the previous year's total, according to the AAPP.

The real figure may be even higher, however. Speaking last month at the release of the Amnesty International report “The Repression of Ethnic Minority Activists in Myanmar,” Benjamin Zawacki estimated that the real number of political prisoners detained in Burma could be as high as 2,500 or more. A total of 208 ethnic minority political prisoners are currently detained in Burma's jails, according to the AAPP. However, AI believes that the real numbers are almost certainly in excess of what is already known.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy: Lalit K. Jha contributed to this story.

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