For democracy activist Nyi Nyi Aung, homecoming is bittersweet

Dissident Nyi Nyi Aung, a U.S. citizen, was imprisoned for months in Burma. He was moved from one solitary confinement cell to another, suffered beatings and was denied food or sleep. Now Aung is back home in Montgomery Village after suddenly being released last week.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Just eight days ago, Nyi Nyi Aung didn't know whether he would live to see his home again. Imprisoned in the Burmese jungle, he'd been beaten, forced to sleep in a kennel in his own excrement, denied medical treatment and told by captors that his U.S. citizenship didn't matter.

At times, it seemed as if it didn't. Aung, sentenced to three years of hard labor after he was caught promoting democracy in Burma, the land of his birth, was crippled by back pain and pain in his right leg from the beatings. Over six months, he had been moved from one solitary confinement cell to another, the last one a stagnant, mosquito-infested room with crumbling walls and a plastic bottle for a toilet.

Aung knew prison conditions in Burma could prove fatal -- a friend had died behind bars -- and sentences could be extended without due process. U.S. consular officers were rarely allowed to visit him.

Then, last week, Aung was suddenly released. Within two days, he was sitting in his Montgomery Village living room, surrounded by lush potted plants, intricately carved wooden statues and gold-plated lacquer boxes.

It felt both miraculous and not strange at all.

"It's my home," he said quietly of the duplex he shares with his fiancee, Wa Wa Kyaw, who sat nearby, nursing a cup of coffee.

Aung, 40, had always known what he was doing was risky. The naturalized U.S. citizen had devoted his life to trying to undermine the military government that has ruled Burma, also known as Myanmar, since before he was born. As a teenager, he was arrested and tortured for participating in a 1988 democracy movement. He fled the country and taught nonviolent resistance along the Thailand-Burma border. He came to the United States in 1994 under the refugee resettlement program and studied computer science at Purdue University.

Occasionally he made forays into Burma to train activists and collect information. It was dangerous work in a country where more than five people at a time cannot gather in the street and where printing anything at all -- even a restaurant menu -- requires government approval.

"In Burma, every citizen has been breaking the law. For listening to the radio, they can arrest you," Aung said. "All the rules are crazy. However, you don't get caught unless you're against the regime."

On Sept. 3, Aung's luck ran out. He landed in Rangoon and was pulled aside by the authorities. At first he denied that he was Nyi Nyi Aung, the name he had taken as an activist. For travel to Burma, he had always used his given name, Kyaw Zaw Lwin.

But last summer he had presented the United Nations with a petition containing 680,000 signatures that called for the release of political prisoners in Burma, and news reports had used both names. He went ahead with his travel plans regardless, saying he was "more worried for the Burmese people."

Harsh prison conditions

Aung recounted his story three days after returning to the United States. He had dropped from 140 pounds to 120 and was hobbled by what doctors on Saturday diagnosed as sciatica from a herniated or slipped disk caused by mistreatment in prison.


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