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So much for US dialogue with Burma

Yesterday Burma told the world it had no interest in engaging with the US. A Burmese court, dictated to by the ruling junta, sentenced an American to three years of hard labor in prison on sham charges.

The junta, which professes to want to engage with the United States, believes that this won’t have consequences for the Obama administration’s engagement policy with Burma.

Since the arrest of Nyi Nyi Aung, the Burmese junta has done nothing but ignore US diplomatic pleas on his behalf and flout international law. The junta arrested Nyi Nyi on 3 September last year at the Rangoon airport. He travelled to Burma to visit his mother, also an imprisoned democracy activist, who has cancer and is being denied medical treatment.

Instead of informing the US embassy of Nyi Nyi’s arrest, the junta spent a week denying him food and water, keeping him awake around the clock, and repeatedly beating him. These actions are clear violations of both Burma’s obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the international law prohibition against torture.

As if this flouting of its responsibilities under international law wasn’t enough, the junta continued to regularly deny Nyi Nyi consular access over the past five months. They also denied him access to lawyers and a public trial. They placed him in military dog cell confinement for over a month. And on 10 February, they sentenced him to three years at hard labor in prison for sham charges to punish him for being a democracy activist.

Nyi Nyi’s treatment by the junta is shocking. But what is perhaps almost as shocking is the junta’s complete disregard for US diplomatic efforts on Nyi Nyi’s behalf. Instead of responding to requests for access to lawyers for Nyi Nyi, the junta denied him a public trial. Instead of responding to demands it stop torturing him and provide him regular consular access, the junta moved Nyi Nyi into solitary confinement and said he would be denied all family visits going forward.

The US and the international community appear satisfied to allow the junta’s horrific treatment of its own citizens to continue with impunity. In addition to Nyi Nyi and his mother, there are over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma. Most famous, of course, is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, general-secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and also the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

The litany of the junta’s crimes against its people matches few other nations from any time period. The junta is waging a war against Burma’s ethnic minorities. Since 1990, it has destroyed over 3,000 villages, and rapes, tortures, and murders these minorities. The number of internally displaced persons is overshadowed only by the more than one million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. The Burmese junta is one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

This is why it is critical that the US, United Nations, and international community engage with the Burmese regime to seek and secure national reconciliation and a restoration of democracy. However, the junta must first understand that engagement is only possible if it operates within the international norms of acceptable behavior in how it treats its own people and conducts its foreign relations.

The junta must realize that the torture and illegal imprisonment of an American for his democracy advocacy will not be tolerated by the US and the international community. If Burma wishes to engage with the US, or any other nation, it cannot continue to act with impunity. The human rights of foreign nationals, not to mention its own, must be respected.

We urge president Obama and secretary Clinton personally to call on junta leader Than Shwe to immediately release Nyi Nyi Aung. We know that the Burmese junta doesn’t care about the lives of its own people — we can only hope that the US government will be able to make Burma care about one of its own.

Jared Genser is president of Freedom Now and international pro bono counsel to Nyi Nyi Aung.