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Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009

Anxiety haunts a Burmese family left in official limbo


Special to The Japan Times

"All my Burmese friends are getting humanitarian visas, but not me," laments Hla Aye Maung, who has lived in Japan for the past 12 years.

News photo
Living in fear: Hla Aye with his wife and daughter in their central Tokyo apartment where he constantly lives in fear of forcible deportation. JEFF KINGSTON

At one time, Hla Aye, 40, worked on a cargo boat that plied the Pacific, but his life suddenly changed in 1996 when he jumped ship in Yokohama and came to Tokyo. In 2003, when he was out shopping, he was picked up by a police patrol and spent the next 18 months in detention after requesting asylum and receiving legal assistance in his bid for refugee status.

When he was released in 2005, Hla Aye was granted a provisional resident's visa that he still renews every three months — despite a series of legal setbacks. Among these, his request for asylum was denied by the Justice Ministry, so he filed suit in district court, but it ruled against him in 2007. His subsequent appeal to the high court was rejected in 2008, and since then he has been living on borrowed time.

Meanwhile, Hla Aye's debts have piled up due to his legal battles and an expensive hospitalization of his daughter, but he has not requested any assistance or relief. He has provided for his family, and they live in a well-kept apartment in Nishi-Nippori, Tokyo, where his daughter is in kindergarten. Another baby is on the way.

Understandably, Hla Aye constantly worries about the future, fearing he might be forcibly repatriated. He is active in the Arakan League for Democracy, regularly demonstrates outside the Burmese Embassy in Tokyo and is a high-profile opponent in Japan of the military junta.

His contention that if he returned to Burma he would face political persecution is certainly valid in a country where a widely despised government relies on fear and intimidation.

Ironically, when his case was being reviewed, he was told that his application was rejected because the U.S. State Department did not list the people of Arakan (officially known as Rakhine) as being targeted for political persecution.

However, having visited Sittwe, Hla Aye's home town and the capital of Arakan, at the end of 2007, I can report that signs of political oppression there are hard to miss. The Saffron Revolution actually started in Sittwe in August 2007 with a mass demonstration led by monks, their ranks swelled by tens of thousands of sympathizers. Then, following the brutal suppression of the monk-led demonstrations in the capital, Yangon, the military clamped down on monasteries known to have been involved.

Indeed, one monastery I visited in Yangon with strong links to Arakan was virtually occupied by the military, some of whom, despite their tattoos, I saw disguised as monks. In Sittwe, I visited ground zero of the local demonstrations, a cluster of ramshackle monasteries where the population of monks had dwindled as the military forced many to leave. In one of the temples, soldiers guarded the entrance with automatic rifles, scowling at visitors, and inside they had turned the main hall into a bivouac.

Meanwhile, at a distance, monks furtively whispered their complaints and voiced their anger at a government that has spread misery among the people.

Elsewhere in Sittwe, people were less circumspect, openly denouncing Senior Gen. Than Shwe's military junta, while several monks predicted their reincarnation as "shit-eating mangy dogs," and called on the United States to mount airstrikes targeting them.

The people of Arakan have a reputation as hotheads. Nowhere else on my travels in Burma did I encounter quite the same degree of edgy, outspoken anger — and the large military presence in this province indicates the government also knows what it is up against.

It is thus bizarre to split hairs about who is subject to political persecution in Burma, since — quite simply — everyone is vulnerable to the abuse of power, and the rule of law is only a rumor. Persecution is so routine that it has become the norm. The courts recently handed down incredibly long prison sentences — think 65 years — to monks, comedians, singers, relief workers, intellectuals, journalists and others for engaging in peaceful protests or allegedly making the government look bad.

It was as if the judges were vying with each other to impress their masters with the excessiveness of their zealotry, an incarceration madness that will cut lives short and ensure they end behind bars.

It can therefore only be hoped that Japan will grant Hla Aye, and others like him, a humanitarian visa and spare him deportation to a country that so recently gunned down and tortured monks who were peacefully demonstrating — and executed a Japanese news photographer for just doing his job.



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