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“I’m an American”
Comments () | Published October 12, 2010
Nyi Nyi learned of the letter during a meeting with the US vice consul in Rangoon. He asked the vice consul to tell Wa Wa that he was grateful for all she was doing. He had ended his hunger strike after nine days and was no longer receiving the IV drip, but he was on antibiotics for an insect bite.

Though the Burmese often denied Nyi Nyi access to the consul and vice consul for weeks at a time, when they could visit they gave Wa Wa immediate updates on Nyi Nyi’s condition. They also provided Nyi Nyi with small comforts such as reading materials.

But that was about all the consular officials could do. And though Genser was pleased with their work, what he really wanted was for State’s main office in Foggy Bottom to up the political pressure on the Burmese.

Genser e-mailed assistant secretary of State Kurt Campbell to request a meeting. The response from Campbell’s assistant came three days later: “Kurt Campbell has a very tight schedule, and he prefers that Consular Affairs handle this matter.”

The brush-off infuriated Genser. “This was not a simple case of an American who got themselves in trouble in a foreign land and needed consular services,” he says. “This was a case where a person was wrongfully imprisoned and wrongfully accused and would be wrongfully convicted and sentenced for something they actually didn’t do. And you needed political engagement in order to spring that person out of that situation.”

Genser knew it was important to maintain a civil dialogue with State. Still, his anger came through in the e-mail he sent back to Campbell’s office. He noted that Republican and Democratic staffers with an interest in the case had kept him apprised of their briefings with the State Department, and they were unhappy with the lack of attention on Nyi Nyi.

Genser mentioned State’s handling of the other American recently jailed in Burma, John Yettaw, who had been arrested for breaking into Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Genser noted that his contacts on the Hill were concerned that a white American who had actually broken the law had received higher-level attention than a Burmese-American imprisoned on political charges.

The implication of the e-mail was clear: State made the white guy a priority but wouldn’t do the same for the guy who looked foreign. Campbell, along with deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia Scot Marciel, agreed to meet with Genser, Schwanke, and Wa Wa on January 5.

By that time, Nyi Nyi had been detained for four months and the State Department still had not publicly called for his release. One House staffer, speaking anonymously because of the private nature of the State Department’s Hill briefings, says he felt “despair and dismay” after being updated by deputy assistant secretary Marciel on State’s low-key approach to Nyi Nyi’s case. Hill staffers also believed that Nyi Nyi’s treatment qualified as torture, whereas the State Department referred to it as “mistreatment.”

Assistant secretary Campbell declined to be interviewed for this story. Another senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity says State didn’t believe the Burmese would respond well to loud public statements about Nyi Nyi. “It was just our considered judgment that we had some prospect of getting him out through quiet diplomacy,” he says. That included low-level communication between the US Embassy in Burma and Burmese diplomatic officials in Rangoon and Washington.

The senior official says State didn’t believe the Burmese ever intended to detain Yettaw for long, making it less risky for Secretary Clinton to call for his release. In Nyi Nyi’s case, the official says, State felt the Burmese regime viewed him as Burmese, not American, and thus intended to hold him longer. State was concerned, says the senior official, that issuing a public statement would only “harden the Burmese position.”

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