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Thirty-four Burmese men jailed in Kolkata in 1998 after apparently being duped by Indian intelligence were this afternoon released, and are now en route to Delhi.
The men, who have come to be known as the ‘Andaman 34’, were members of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA), two Burmese armed resistance groups. They were lured to the Indian Andaman islands in the Bay of Bengal in 1998 by an Indian intelligence officer named colonel Grewal, with the promise of a safe haven, before being arrested and handed lengthy prison terms.
“We were released today at 1.55pm, and now we are in the car,” said Dynyalin, speaking to DVB this afternoon. “Three are left in prison – they have to go to Andaman as there is a minor case to settle.”
A statement released today by the group said: “With our freedom, we would like to reiterate our commitment that we will continue our struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma.”
They will today walk free as registered refugees after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) granted them status in March, a crucial step towards avoiding the repatriation to Burma where they would surely meet severe repression from the government.
One of the 34 released today waves to crowds outside the Kolkata prison, India (DVB)
The group had initially consisted of 42, but on arrival on Landfall Island in the Andaman chain, six of the leaders were killed. This, according to former NUPA members, effectively eradicated the group’s leadership.
In the course of their ordeal two other members disappeared and are believed to have been killed either by Indian security forces or, according to the Indian state, during an attempted escape from the islands on a makeshift raft.
Thrity-one of the group will make their way to Delhi this evening where they will be greeted by leading members of the exiled Burmese community in Delhi, including an elected MP from the 1990 Burmese polls, Dr Tint Swe.
He told DVB of his “appreciation on behalf of the exiled Burmese in India to the government of India” for realising the release of the 34. Three of the remaining prisoners will travel to the Andaman Islands to clear up formalities with authorities there. A statement from Danya Lin, the de facto spokesperson of the group, said: “We believe that they will be able to join us soon in freedom.”
Lawyer Nandita Haksar, the group’s first advocate, told DVB that “even though they’ve been released, it’ll be very hard for the 31 of them to adapt to life in Delhi. They’re going to have to deal with so many problems.”
Dr Tint Swe did however question whether it was a coincidence that their release comes so soon after a prisoner amnesty inside Burma. He suggested however that the Burmese were urging their Indian counterparts to suppress anti-regime groups in the country.
He now believes that most would seek resettlement in a third country because, as Haksar told DVB, “They’ll be depending entirely on support from other Burmese exiles who live on nothing – these are the people who are going to be supporting them now.”