A U.S. Citizen’s Curious Journey to a Myanmar Jail

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 the military-run country. Among them is the unusual case of Nyi Nyi Aung, a naturalized U.S. citizen who gave up a 9-to-5 job in the relative comfort of the suburbs of Washington to campaign for democracy in his native Myanmar.

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 his Myanmar citizenship when he became a U.S. citizen. He faces 12 years’ imprisonment.

For the administration of President Barack Obama, the case comes at an awkward time, complicating U.S. efforts to try to engage the military government after years of minimal contacts between the two countries.

But beyond the politics of the case is the personal journey of Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung from teenage dissident in Myanmar to exile in the United States and finally what some describe as his curious decision — others call it bold — to travel back to Myanmar last September despite public warnings by the ruling junta that he was a wanted man for his anti-government activities.

Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung had spent the past several years campaigning for democracy in Myanmar from Thailand and the United States, and his work had caught the attention of the junta, which mentioned his name in the official media.

He had made four previous visits to Myanmar since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2002. Each time, including for his current visit, he obtained a visa from the Myanmar government, according to his lawyers. But the September trip appears to have been the first time he visited Myanmar after the junta publicly singled him out for inciting unrest. “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 U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, an organization that promotes human rights and the end of military rule in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung kept his trip secret from his fiancée and most of his friends. The few people he told tried to dissuade him from going, friends say. They speculate that what made Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung fly to Myanmar was the health of his mother, Daw San San Tin, who has thyroid cancer and is also a political prisoner, serving five years for her involvement in the Buddhist monk-led uprising in 2007, which was brutally suppressed.

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

Using his U.S. passport, Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung may have hoped that he could visit his mother, who is being held in a remote prison in central Myanmar.

Human rights campaigners complain that Washington has not done enough to fight what they say are bogus charges against Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung.

“Activists are frustrated by the lack of noise from the U.S, government when he is a U.S. citizen,” Elaine Pearson, deputy director at Human Rights Watch, an organization based in the United States that follows the cases of dissidents in Myanmar.

His arrest and detention, she said, has had a chilling effect on the Myanmar’s exile community. “Certainly those with friends and relatives inside will think twice before attempting to quietly visit Burma again,” she said.

Members of Congress and the consular affairs section of the U.S. State Department have been doing a “wonderful job” pressing for his release, said Wa Wa Kyaw, Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung’s fiancée, who works as a nurse in Maryland. But like others involved with the case, Ms. Wa Wa Kyaw laments that higher-level members of the Obama administration have not issued public pleas for his release.

Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung flew to Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, on Sept. 3 and was detained soon after landing in what friends say appears to have been a trap.

The Myanmar authorities initially charged Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung with violating an internal security law. The New Light of Myanmar, the government’s mouthpiece, accused him of creating unrest within the country and plotting “internal riots and sabotage.”

Those charges were dropped without explanation in October, and prosecutors announced the current charges.

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

Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung, who is also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin, began his activism young. He fled Myanmar more than two decades ago after the seminal pro-democracy uprising in 1988. Only 18 years old at the time, he helped organize high school students. He fled with many other organizers when the military began a crackdown.

He traveled to the United States in 1993 as a refugee, obtained a computer science degree there and worked as a technician at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

But he was restless, said Ms. Wa Wa Kyaw, his fiancée.

“He really, really wants to do everything for freedom and democracy in Burma,” she said.

Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung shuttled between Maryland and Mae Sot, Thailand, a border town where many Myanmar exiles are based.

The family had no involvement in politics before the 1988 uprising, according to Mr. Nyi Nyi Aung’s brother, Ko Ko Aung. But their role as organizers of the demonstrations that came close to toppling the military-led government two decades ago and their subsequent pro-democracy activities have splintered the family. Mr. Ko Ko Aung is in exile in Thailand. Two cousins are serving prison terms for their involvement in the 2007 uprising, one of whom, Thet Thet Aung, was sentenced to 65 years.

Their mother, San San Tin, is serving her five-year term in the remote town of Meiktila, several hundred kilometers north of Yangon.

Mr. Ko Ko Aung said he does not know whether her cancer has progressed or is life-threatening. “She hasn’t received any treatment in jail,” he said.

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