Nyi Nyi Aung is 41-years-old and originally from Rangoon. He currently works as a computer engineer and political activist in America. I speak to Nyi Nyi Aung on the phone on 19 April 2010.
Nyi Nyi Aung (born Kyaw Zaw Lwin) came to the United States as a refugee in 1993. According to his fiancé, he remained restless; all he really wanted to do was to be active in the struggle for democracy in Burma. He travelled between the US and Thailand’s border town of Mae Sot to develop and support activities directed at creating freedom and democracy in Burma. On his last trip to Burma, in September 2009, he was arrested at the airport. He was on his way to visit relatives – some of whom are imprisoned themselves – and to check on the situation inside the country. In March 2010, he was released and flown back to America.
“At the moment I am recovering from my time in prison in Burma. I take medicine for my back problems. I suffer from severe back pains and my spine was dislocated because of torture and my time in solitary confinement. I was in solitary confinement for one month.”
“I was released after six months, without explanation. But that is normal in Burma. I was not given any explanation or reason for my arrest, interrogation and detention.”
“I feel I was released because of pressure from the outside: not only from the US or other governments, but also from the international community and Burmese exile community who called for my release.”
“I do think even [junta chief] Than Shwe is sensitive to international pressure. What you see is that the EU and the US are always ‘demanding for ….blah blah blah’. This does not work. They should state clear demands and set timeframes. Than Shwe knows very well how to play and manoeuvre with the international community. That is why I am so focused on telling the international community and the US Congress about Burma. I am busy going to many places and informing people about what is happening inside Burma. I want the international community to understand that we can do it. At the moment I am busy with the treatment for my back, but I am also meeting many people. There is a sense of urgency.”
“Since 2005, I have gone inside the country regularly. I want to get a good sense of what keeps the people occupied and the actual political work on the ground. I want to see for myself what the situation in my country is and be sure that the international community understands. I share this information with organisations that work on Burma.”
“In September 2009, I went to Burma again. I was arrested at the airport and taken straight to the interrogation centre. I kept asking them questions and kept asking to see a lawyer and to see my embassy, but they were not interested.”
“You can kill me but you cannot shut my mouth. I do not want to get hurt, but I prepare for it. Anytime you can get caught. But my fear for Burma’s people and future is bigger than my own fear.”
“They tortured me – this is normal in Burma. They beat and punched me and tortured me mentally. I was deprived of food and sleep and had to sit on a chair for long periods of time. They asked me: ‘What is your plan? Who are your contacts? Where are you hiding your stuff? Who supports you? Is there a terrorist connection?’
“According to the UN Convention on Torture I should not be tortured at all, but it happened.”
“They kept me in isolation, too. In this place you can talk with other prisoners but you cannot see each other. Other prisoners can talk and see each other. I stayed alone. I could hear people shouting in the distance. We communicated like that. They also put me in the dog cells for one month, and later again, for one day.”
What is Nyi Nyi Aung’s plan for the future?
“My plan is to tear down the regime and promote human rights and democracy anywhere it is needed. I do this by lobbying and raising awareness, both inside and outside Burma. We need international help to do this. I also want to tell people about the non-violent way and how to do it. I want to motivate the people to believe and to trust themselves. They have to stand up for their rights. The Burmese people have suffered under military regimes since 1958. They have had no time to practise democracy. The people do not know what democracy and human rights mean.”
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said that because she grew up in free countries, she feels she is less fearful. Can Nyi Nyi Aung relate to this, because he has lived in the US for more than 20 years?
“When I got caught last September, they asked me ‘are you afraid?’ I said: ‘No, I have the right to do this. I am aware of my rights.’ I feel very sorry for the Burmese people inside the country. Many of them do not know this. They do not know what their rights are. We need to teach them to stand up for their rights.”
What can people in the free world do to support the struggle for freedom in Burma?
“Ask your governments to put more pressure on Than Shwe. This is the only way to get peace: pressure by sanctions on the regime and its cronies. The current policy does not work, it is just words. We need real actions. Do not just say sanctions, but boycott!
“I do not agree with the engagement policy of the United States: the regime does not understand the language of freedom. It is stick and carrot policy.”
Does Nyi Nyi Aung have a message for people in the West and in Burma?
“Think deeply about what you really want for the future. You own your own life. If you love peace, justice, equality, go and do it by yourself! Trust yourself. Do it! Do not wait for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to fix it. Do it. Everyone has to work if they want peace and freedom! There is a lack of motivation.
“There is a culture of corruption which is deeply rooted in Burma: it threatens peace and the international community. People are selling their dignity and morality with their food. They keep their mouths shut and let the regime do what they want. If this continues for another ten years, it would be disastrous for the international community. If this regime stays on much longer, Burma will become like countries such as Pakistan. We have no education for the people. Mental development is very important.”
This interview forms part of the soon-to-be-launched Burma Voices project.