Five months after being deported from China, Karen rebel leader Mahn Nyein Maung has been sentenced to 17 years imprisonment, according to a source following the case in Rangoon.
A controversial character, Mahn Nyein Maung is often likened to French convict “Papillon” because of his extraordinary escape from prison on Coco Island in 1970 when he floated across the Indian Ocean clutching driftwood.
He went on trial on Dec. 8 behind closed doors at Mingaladon Court in Rangoon and was later sentenced after being charged with having connections to the Karen National Union (KNU), long denounced by the Burmese government as an illegal militia.
Mahn Nyein Maung, a leading member of the KNU and a central committee member of the ethnic armed alliance, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), disappeared at China’s Kunming Airport in late July.
He was subsequently charged in Burma for violating immigration laws and possessing a fake passport. He was sentenced to one year for the immigration charge on Sept. 27, according to Rangoon-based Flower News Journal.
Then, in early December, he was put on trial on the more grievous charges. His case was not publicized and next to no information has been divulged either by the authorities or the KNU about Mahn Nyein Maung’s case or his condition.
An inside source told The Irrawaddy that the Karen rebel leader visited the ethnic Wa region via China on the Sino-Burma border in July. He was subsequently denied reentry into Thailand—where he was living at the time—as he had not applied for a reentry visa when he left from Thailand to China.
Despite his role within the KNU and UNFC, his trip to China and the Wa region had nothing to do with those organization, said the sources. KNU leaders also said that they didn’t know about Mahn Nyein Maung trip to China.
A former activist and political prisoner, Mahn Nyein Maung apparently visited northern Burma to observe first-hand the armed conflict between ethnic armed groups and government troops near the border.
Karen sources have said that after he was denied entry into Thailand, he was sent back to China’s Yunnan province where he was detained at the Kunming Airport. Yunnanese authorities reportedly insisted that Mahn Nyein Maung buy an air ticket with his own money for his deportation to Rangoon.
Mahn Nyein Maung was first arrested in 1960 for his work as an underground dissident. He was sentenced and sent to Coco Island, an infamous detention center for political prisoners located about 300 km off the Burmese mainland. He and two other political prisoners, Mahn Aung Kyi and Aung Ngwe, managed to escape from the island in 1970 by floating across the Indian Ocean clutching driftwood.
Due to his extraordinary escape from Coco Island, Mahn Nyein Maung is frequently likened to the famous French prisoner Henri Charrière, nicknamed “Papillon,” who escaped a penal colony in French Guyana. Like Charrière, Mahn Nyein Maung wrote and published a book about his experiences inside the brutal prison at Coco Island and his daring escape.