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“I’m an American”
When democracy advocate Nyi Nyi Aung was arrested in Burma, it took a determined Washington lawyer to get him home By Marisa M. Kashino
Nyi Nyi Aung knew traveling to Burma was risky, but he needed to see his mother, who had cancer and was in prison. Photograph by Matthew Worden.
Comments () | Published October 12, 2010
Thousands of miles from his home in Gaithersburg, Nyi Nyi Aung sat in a courtroom within Insein Prison, a jail in Rangoon, Burma. He listened as the judge handed down his sentence—three years including hard labor.

Nyi Nyi felt no fear or panic, only relief. For the first time since his arrest in the Southeast Asian country five months earlier, he was certain that US authorities would soon step in and rescue him. He was the only American political prisoner in Burma, and embassy officials in Rangoon had indicated that the United States was waiting for his trial to end before taking action. Nyi Nyi returned to his cell and went to sleep.

Around 3 am, guards woke him, put shackles on his wrists and ankles, and led him onto a public bus. They didn’t tell Nyi Nyi where he was going. He felt embarrassed as the other passengers stared at him, chained up like a criminal, so he said loudly, “I am Nyi Nyi Aung. I am an American citizen and a democracy activist.” Some passengers gave him a silent thumbs-up.

But their support was of little comfort. For 6½ hours, the bus rattled and bounced along dirt roads to Prome Prison, a rural jail surrounded by rice fields. By the time the journey was over, Nyi Nyi doubted he would see his fiancée or the suburban townhouse they shared ever again.

Thousands of Americans are imprisoned abroad every year, according to the State Department, which can’t provide a precise figure because it relies on individual embassies to track arrests, many of which are never reported. While it’s easy to assume that carrying a US passport ensures a certain level of protection, when Americans travel to foreign countries, they’re at the mercy of local laws. In most arrests of citizens abroad, all that the US government will do is notify the families and provide a list of local attorneys as well as an explanation of the country’s judicial procedures.

But prisoners such as Nyi Nyi (pronounced “nee nee”) who are jailed on politically motivated charges without possibility of a fair trial stand little chance of coming home without diplomatic intervention. A few grab national attention, such as journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling—sister of television reporter Lisa Ling—who were detained in North Korea last year. Both were employees of former Vice President Al Gore’s media company and were ultimately rescued by former President Bill Clinton.

But the families of prisoners without such high-level connections must figure out other means of raising awareness about their loved ones and making them a priority for the State Department. Luckily for Nyi Nyi, he had help in Washington.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/12/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles