Wed 31 Mar 2010
Filed under: International
Nearly two weeks after returning home from a political prison in Myanmar, Nyi Nyi Aung of Montgomery Village cannot stop thinking of his homeland.“I’m tired but I have to send out the message to the public,” he said Saturday, still nursing injuries he suffered during his six-month incarceration. “I’m happy one way, but on the other hand, I am not, because I really want my mom to be free, my friends to be free, my people to be free.”
The Burmese-born pro-democracy activist called for the United States to reach out to the international community to put pressure on Myanmar, formerly Burma, through increased sanctions.
The Southeast Asian country is ruled by a military junta led by Senior General Than Shwe, chairman of the State Peace and Development Council of the Union of Myanmar, and known as one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Many residents live in poverty under the dictatorial generals.
The National League for Democracy party won elections in 1990 by a landslide, but military leaders refused to recognize the victory. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was elected primed minister with 59 percent of the vote, has since lived under house arrest, along with hundreds of supporters.
Than Shwe’s regime has promised multi-party elections in 2010, but Aung does not believe circumstances will change.
“The regime keeps doing what they want to do, they’re not listening to anyone else,” he said, adding that General Than Shwe’s so-called democratic constitution does not work for people at all.
A harrowing time
Aung, a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2002, was arrested in September at Yangon’s international airport, while trying to visit his dying mother.
His mother, cousin and brother-in-law, as well as friends, are being held in prisons throughout Burma, said Aung, who was jailed and beaten in 1988 for organizing pro-democracy campaigns.
Aung came to the U.S. in 1993 as a political refugee, resettled in Rockville in 1994, studied at Purdue University in Indiana and Montgomery College, and worked at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. before he returned to being a pro-democracy activist for Burma.
“My focus is actually working inside the country, trying to engage, get their point of view, what young people are thinking, also get information on what they are doing,” he said.
The September trip was his ninth to Burma since 2005, Aung said. He travelled on a passport bearing his legal name, Kyaw Zaw Lin, rather than the nickname “Nyi Nyi” and father’s last name, which he has used most of his life.
Officials spotted Aung at customs, seized his laptop, questioned, arrested and blindfolded him, then threw him in a car and drove several hours.
“They try to make up my story, like I’m a terrorist, so they keep trying to make the connection,” Aung said.
His captors asked about his contacts in Burma, where he hid documents and satellites, who gives him financial support.
They arrived at an interrogation room, where he spent two weeks with his wrists shackled to a table as officials kicked his chair off balance, Aung said, and punched him in the face when he would not answer questions. He floated in and out of consciousness in those weeks, he said. He then was transferred to the notorious Insein prison, where hundreds of political prisoners reportedly have died.
“The first 17 days was really a nightmare,” said Aung’s fiancée, Wa Wa Kyaw, a hospice nurse for Montgomery Hospice in Rockville, who said she told herself she might never see her beloved again.
“Then I knew that he was alive, but we had no had idea what kind of charges would be imposed on him.”
Hoping for freedom
Kyaw heard about Aung’s arrest from his brother in Thailand, then went more than two weeks without news. Once she learned he was alive, she scaled back her work to spend one day a week lobbying Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other members of the Obama administration to help secure his release.
Freedom Now, a Maryland and Washington-based nonprofit group that works to free prisoners of conscience, helped. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Dist. of Kensington and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore were especially instrumental. Aung was limping when he returned from Burma on March 19.
“His whole body was shaking,” Kyaw said.
Two days later, she took him to see a spine specialist. He had suffered a herniated disc and spinal compression, the doctor said, likely the result of his punishment in the interrogation room and sleeping on uneven wooden slats for six months.
Aung said his 8-foot-by-20-foot concrete cell had no chair. He sat for hours on the floor crying out his beliefs in democracy. More than 300 political prisoners have died in Insein prison since 1998, he said.
“I have to be strong to get freedom for the people of Burma, otherwise we will be under the oppression forces,” he said he told himself. “I really want Burma to be free, so I have may have to pay my life, to give to the people.”
Aung feels better after receiving an epidural shot in his spine and taking prescribed medications to relieve pain. He hopes to avoid spinal surgery.
He will continue to wage a non-violent struggle against the junta in Burma, he said.
“I have to get healthy first.”