Fate of Burmese rebels remains uncertain

Lawyers for the Karen and Arakanese rebel fighters detained in India for more than 12 years will today file a petition aimed at clarifying the “confusing” sentence handed to the 34 men.

A Kolkata courtroom yesterday sentenced the group to 15 months in prison and a fine of 6,000 rupees [US$130] each, which if they fail to pay will translate to an eight month prison term. But chief advocate on the trial, Nandita Haksar, said that the defence team “hasn’t been able to understand this judgement”, given that the men have already served their term and do not have the money to pay the fine.

“We’re also filing a petition asking that the 140,000 rupees [US$3,000] bail money that we raised in 1999 which is still lying in Port Blair [Andaman Islands] be transferred to Kolkata,” she said.

In was on the Andaman Islands that the murky tale of the original 42 rebel fighters, from the Karen National Union (KNU) and the now-defunct National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA), began. They were allegedly lured there in 1998 by Indian intelligence, likely collaborating with the Burmese government, after being promised a safe haven.

Six of the original 42 were shot dead by Indian security forces and the rest, accused of weapons smuggling, detained on the Andaman Islands. Two mysteriously disappeared whilst on bail.

Their sentences yesterday were on charges of illegally entering the country and illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Haksar said that she was “sure they will be released but how long it will take I don’t know”.

“The problem is that the West Bengal government has not dealt with the [UN High Commissioner for Refugees]. They will be allowed to stay in India [after their release] insofar as all the other refugees can – there are 600 or so Burmese refugees every month that come to India.”

The defence also entered into a plea bargain last week. Haksar said it was one of the first of its kind in India, and has likely further confused the case.

Dr. Tint Swe, 1990-elected Burmese people’s parliament leader who is now exiled in India and who provided assistance to the rebels, said that he had visited the 34 yesterday and discussed their future stay in India.

“We still have concerns about whether or not they will be freed after the fine or the eight-month jail term,” he said. “However, there is a little bit of encouragement for us as India is showing that they are seriously considering [their future], although there is no black or white outcome yet. We assume that negotiations are taking place.”

The head of the Burma Centre campaigning group in Delhi, Kim, said that the group had “officially informed the West Bengal state government that Burmese communities in India will guarantee food, accommodation and travel expenses for the 34 if they get released”.

The rebels are to remain in Kolkata prison until negotiations are resolved between the West Bengal state government and the central Indian government. Details of what exactly happened in 1998 are likely to remain vague, but the trial has been chequered with inconsistencies, while one of the early trial lawyers, T. Vasnatha, was murdered.

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