As an American is Tortured in Burma, Where's the Outrage?

In his speech at the United Nations last week, President Obama pledged that "America will live its values, and we will lead by example." If we are to believe him, he must stand up for the human rights of his fellow Americans.
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As I write this, an American is being tortured in Burma. Yet little is being done by the United States to secure his release and few mainstream media outlets are covering his story. So why isn't more being done on Nyi Nyi Aung's behalf?

The last time I saw Nyi Nyi Aung (also known as Kyaw Zaw Lwin) was in June at an event in New York to commemorate the 64th birthday of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Nyi Nyi Aung was dressed in a crisp white collarless button-down shirt and a Burmese plaid sarong -- since 1988 the recognizable uniform of Burma's student democracy activists. Born in Burma, Nyi Nyi Aung fled the country following his participation in 1988's democracy protests. Since 1994, he's lived in the U.S. as a resident of suburban Maryland.

Today Nyi Nyi Aung languishes in Burma's infamous Insein (pronounced "insane") Prison, where for four decades legions of democracy activists have been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. Since his arrest in September, credible reports have emerged that Nyi Nyi Aung has been tortured, beaten, even denied food for a week. Indeed, there's a good chance that Nyi Nyi Aung is being tortured right now -- his body spread out and tied down to a rough table while guards beat him with bamboo canes. Sadly, as the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma has thoroughly documented, such torture is routine for the roughly 2,100 political prisoners in Burma. So how does an American citizen end up tortured in Burma?

On September 3rd, Nyi Nyi Aung arrived at Rangoon's airport with a tourist visa stamped into his American passport. For whatever reason, Burma's ruling junta was waiting for him. For the more than three-weeks since he was arrested at the airport, Nyi Nyi Aung has been a prisoner of a foreign regime. Yet Nyi Nyi Aung's name and face have yet to be beamed out on the evening news, nor has the State Department made an official appeal on his behalf. The White House also hasn't done a thing despite the fact that President Obama's is bound by law to take up Nyi Nyi Aung's case if it appears that the imprisonment is wrongful (remember Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea and Senator Webb's trip to Burma earlier this year?). So why isn't there more outrage and action at this American's appalling treatment by a ruthless dictatorship? One answer is that America's recent flirtation with torture has inured it to the torture of Americans themselves, but I can't and don't want to believe this.

A more likely answer lies with the U.S.'s recent decision to rethink its foreign policy on Burma. The tough "stick" sanctions policy, which has prevailed in Washington for over a decade and admittedly hasn't brought Burma closer to democracy, seems to be quickly giving way to a softer "carrots" engagement policy despite the regime's brutal response to the 2007 democracy protests and its pitiful failure to act after Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma last year. This policy realignment kicked off last week in Washington, D.C. with a meeting between the State Department and Burma's foreign minister. Major General Nyan Win's visit to the capital was the first by a Burmese foreign minister in nine years because of a visa ban that had kept high-level members of the military junta from traveling in the U.S. The visa ban is law, but that didn't stop the Obama administration from waiving the ban -- no doubt the first of many controversial carrots to come.

Whatever the consequences of this policy sea change, it seems clear that as a result the military dictatorship will gain at the expense of the country's embattled democracy movement, at least in the short term. But how will this change in policy affect those inside Burma, whose human rights and dignity are already threatened on a massive scale? Given the recent treatment of Nyi Nyi Aung, by both the junta and the United States government, we should be worried. Human rights are clearly not a priority of this policy reversal.

Ignoring Nyi Nyi Aung's arrest and torture, I fear, was a direct consequence of the U.S.'s reengagement with the regime. Given the delicate and controversial politics at play, calling for his release, it was probably reasoned, would have jeopardized the U.S.'s entire strategy to bring the junta to the table. Of course, you might argue that it wasn't in the best interests of the junta either to torture an American just as its foreign minister was arriving in Washington. But the junta is famous for testing the limits of what it can get away with.

The message from Washington to Burma's junta last week was clear: we will look the other way, even at the torture of one of our own, if you engage with us. The U.S.'s ultimate objective by engaging the junta remains unclear. Engagement is not a bad thing per say, in fact it's needed, but the motives for it should be made clear and transparent. Many analysts suspect that the reengagement is a purely realpolitik move directed at containing Chinese influence in Burma rather than any meaningful step towards democracy promotion. Either way, it's a gamble for a White House that is already doing too little to promote and protect human rights worldwide.

In his speech at the United Nations last week, President Obama pledged that "America will live its values, and we will lead by example." If we are to believe Mr. Obama, he must -- at the very least -- stand up for the human rights of his fellow Americans. As for the U.S.'s position on Burma, whatever we do, let's ensure that the protection and promotion of human rights remains a clear priority of that policy. The U.S.'s failure to act on Nyi Nyi Aung's behalf, much less the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma, is a clear reminder that we must not allow human rights to be sacrificed at the altar of "diplomatic engagement."

Jonathan Hulland is a recent graduate of Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs. He worked with Burma's democracy movement in New York and Thailand from 2003 to 2008.

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