Many Burmese were waiting at the domestic arrivals meeting area inside New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.
Seeing traditionally dressed people, girls with garlands, and a number of reporters, someone asked: “Are you Tibetans welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama?”
“We are Burmese,” replied one.
One Burmese man held a placard, which read: “We welcome our patriotic heroes!”
Then someone asked again: “Are you waiting for some senior official such as a foreign minister?”
“No. We are welcoming our patriotic revolutionaries who were released from over 13 years imprisonment in Kolkata prison,” answered the same man.
The onlooker said, “Wow! How magnificent and joyful!”
Despite the attention directed at them, the Burmese only paid attention to the arrivals board.
While reporters and others were eagerly waiting, one Burmese said, “There they are! They are coming!”
Wearing white T-shirts with Arakan and Karen logos, 31 recently freed revolutionaries walked out to the meeting area.
Amazement, joy, and despair could be seen on the faces of the revolutionaries amid the camera flashes.
“We didn’t expect that we would be greeted this way—placards and garlands,” said released Karen rebel Sa Toe Toe, “Seeing the crowd suddenly, I can’t even describe how I feel. I am happy for my release and cry for being honored this way.”
In 1998, Sa Toe Toe and 39 others were arrested at Landfall Island in the Andaman Islands and held without charge for eight years by the Indian navy. They were later convicted and imprisoned for entering India illegally, weapons smuggling and aiding insurgents in northwestern India. Six group members died while being transported from their initial holding placement in the Andaman Islands to a correctional facility in Kolkata.
The Arakanese and Karen rebels claim they had reached a deal with Indian intelligence services to provide intelligence on Chinese naval activities in the region in return for using Landfall Island as a base for their activities against the Burmese government.
Three rebels will return to Port Blair to face questioning in another matter and are expected to be freed in a month.
“I am not happy because we had to leave three comrades there,” said Pho Cho, a released Karen rebel, “They were downhearted, so we gave them moral support. I believe they will be able to join us soon.”
Although their prison terms were already served, the rebels must remain in prison because they do not have permission to stay in India.
After the recognition of the rebels’ refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Indian government finally ordered the 31 prisoners’ release from detention.
“We are very glad for being warmly welcomed and honored by the Burmese community in New Delhi,” said Aung Naing Win, a released National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) member, “It will be better if political prisoners in Burma’s prisons are also released like us.”
Dah Ael, another released Karen National Union (KNU) member, expressed a similar feeling.
“I felt something when I came out of prison and the airport,” said Dah Ael, “When other people were released from prison their families came and picked them up. But, we didn’t have families waiting for us. We don’t even know where they are now.”
NUPA chairman Khaig Mara Wa said, “I am glad that they are finally free. Their release reminds me of the six fallen leaders. I would be more than happy if they are still alive and the remaining three members are together with us now.”
Nandita Haksar, a prominent Indian human rights lawyer who defended the detained KNU and NUPA members, was more ambivalent.
“In fact, this day should have come a long time ago,” said Haksar, “I am very angry with the Indian government for placing them behind bars for so many years. Anyway, I am glad that they are free at last.”
The released KNU and NUPA members will be relocated in a third country as a part of their refugee status.
“Although we want to go back and work for the KNU, we still can’t do anything under the present situation,” said released KNU member Kay Ti, “For our safety, we can’t stay here for long, so we will have to try to leave for a third country.”
Readjustment to life after prison also was on the rebels’ minds.
“I saw so many cars and people on our way from prison to the airport,” said Kay Ti. “I didn’t even know what to do as my eyes and ears were very tired. I have never been on a plane so I feel something in my head now.”
The released freedom fighters were reported to have helped each other and cooperated in overcoming difficulties in prison.Taking lessons from the past, they said they will work together to face down future difficulties and promote their
country’s cause. http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=21385