US citizen jailed in Burma

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MARCO WERMAN: While the Obama administration is mulling over its policy in Afghanistan, it's also rethinking how to handle Myanmar. The US has long pursued a policy of isolating the military government in the country also known as Burma, but Washington says that policy isn't working. Yesterday a State Department official said the US will soon send a diplomatic team to Myanmar for talks. One issue that's likely come up is the case of a US citizen named Kyaw Zaw Lwin. Zaw Lwin has been in prison in Burma for nearly two months. He was born in Burma, but has been living in exile for 20 years. Recently he went back, and was arrested. Reporter Bruce Wallace spoke with his fiancee, Wa Wa Kyaw, at her home outside of Washington.

BRUCE WALLACE: These are some of the things that Wa Wa Kyaw hears about jail cells in Myanmar: they're tiny, airless, no windows, no toilets. The food's inedible; torture is common.

WA WA KYAW: It's not like a prison in the United States. You cannot imagine the prison in Burma.

WALLACE: But prison conditions aren't the first thing that went through her head when she learned that Kyaw Zaw Lwin had been arrested.

WA WA: He could be dead. That's the first thing that came to my mind. They could kill him and then he could be not found anywhere.

WALLACE: Kyaw Zaw Lwin was arrested going into Myanmar on September 3rd. He never got to the family members who were waiting for him at the airport. It was 17 days before someone from the US Embassy was allowed to visit him in prison.
WA WA: I was very much relieved that he was still alive, but on the other hand, the news that really disturbed me was he was beaten, he was tortured physically and mentally. And also he--they didn't feed him for seven days.

WALLACE: The US Embassy has filed a complaint with the Burmese government about Kyaw Zaw Lwin's treatment. Kyaw Zaw Lwin originally fled his home country in 1988 after taking part in student protests there. He came to the US as a refugee in the early '90s, became a US Citizen, studied and got a degree in computer science. All the time he continued to do pro-democracy work. For the past two years he's been working in Thailand with other Burmese activists. This summer he delivered a petition with nearly 700,000 signatures to the UN urging stronger action to free Burmese political prisoners. His fiancee says she doesn't know for certain why he chose to go back to Myanmar in September. But she says he'd been increasingly worried about his mother and two cousins. They were arrested two years ago during a political crackdown and they've been in jail ever since. His mother is battling cancer and in need of medical attention.

WA WA: He's been feeling so bad for his families, and the colleagues, and all these political prisoners in Burma. So he might be thinking that he can make a change. Probably that is why he went back to Burma.

WALLACE: Kyaw Zaw Lwin's arrest comes at a time when the Obama administration is rethinking US policy towards Myanmar's military regime. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that sanctions have had little effect. Now the US is considering increasing diplomatic engagement with the country. A State Department spokeswoman told me it was too early to say how Zaw Lwin's case might affect policy considerations. Brian Joseph, director for South and Southeast Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy, says the case should be part of the mix.

BRIAN JOSEPH: The fact that he is an American citizen does put a whole host of obligations on the United States, and my sense is that he will have to be part of, if not a critical piece, of any discussion they have with the regime.

WALLACE: Kyaw Zaw Lwin's is expected to appear at a hearing tomorrow. He's charged with traveling with fraudulent documents. He's being represented by the same lawyers that defended Aung Sung Suu Kyi in her recent trial. Myanmar's embassy in DC couldn't say anything about the case. They said they only know what they read in newspapers and online. Wa Wa Kyaw says despite all that's happened she still supports her fiance's work.

WALLACE: Was any part of you that's angry at all that he took such a risk, knowing that he's a pretty visible critic of the Burmese government?

WA WA: My answer is not at all. No. Our heart, it's in Burma. We were born in Burma, we were raised in Burma. Whatever we have to do, whatever he has to do, to free Burma, I totally understand.

WALLACE: Still, she's not optimistic about his trial, and she doesn't expect him to be released in time to celebrate his 40th birthday. It's next Wednesday. For The World, I'm Bruce Wallace, Gaithersburg, Maryland.