Summary and Current Status
On March 18, 2010, more than six months after his arrest, Kyaw Zaw Lwin was released from a prison in northern Myanmar and turned over to U.S. consular officials in the capital, Yangon. His aunt, who lives in Yangon, reported that her nephew was in high spirits but had lost a lot of weight during his incarceration. He flew to Thailand that evening and has now returned to the United States. The Myanmar government has not given any explanation for his sudden release.
A 40-year-old computer scientist and well-known human rights activist, Kyaw Zaw Lwin was arrested on September 3, 2009, upon landing at Yangon International Airport for what appears to be his longstanding peaceful efforts to promote freedom and democracy in Myanmar. He reportedly had gone to Myanmar in the hope of visiting his mother, who is serving a 5-year prison sentence for taking part in antigovernment protests in 2007 and has thyroid cancer, and his sister, also a political prisoner who is serving a 65-year sentence. The CHR undertook Kyaw Zaw Lwin's case in late 2009 and sent letters of appeal to high-level Myanmar government officials in his behalf. Fifty-three U.S. members of Congress sent a joint letter to Myanmar's leader urging his release.
Kyaw Zaw Lwin, who was born in Myanmar, is a veteran peaceful prodemocracy activist, as are many members of his family. As a teenager he organized and led a number of peaceful student protests during the1988 uprising. Following the violent crackdown that ensued when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in a landslide victory but prevented by the millitary rulers from assuming leadership of the country, Kyaw Zaw Lwin fled the country. Eventually, in 1993, he sought political asylum in the United States. In 2002 Kyaw Zaw Lwin became a U.S. citizen and earned a degree in computer science. However, he remained deeply involved in efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar. Because he became known by the nickname Nyi Nyi Aung in his personal and professional life in the United States, he reportedly was able to travel to Myanmar regularly to work with the opposition underground using his U.S. passport under his legal name Kyaw Zaw Lwin without the Myanmar government ever making the connection. Three months before his arrest, however, he delivered a petition with 680,000 signatures to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's Special Adviser to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari calling for the release of all political prisoners in Myanmar. In so doing, he brought new attention to himself, which likely led to his arrest when he tried to enter Myanmar in September. His mother and sister, as well as three other relatives and most of his friends, are serving prison sentences for their participation in peaceful protests during the 2007 "Saffron Revolution."
Following his arrest in September, Kyaw Zaw Lwin was initially accused by Myanmar authorities of seeking "to create unrests within the country" and planning "to instigate unrest and launch terrorist attacks." Those national security-related accusations were later dropped and replaced with an unrelated set of charges--using a forged Myanmar identity card, possessing undeclared foreign currency, and failing to renounce his Burmese citizenship. In February 2010 Kyaw Zaw Lwin was convicted and sentenced to five years' hard labor in closed proceedings that contravened international fair trial standards. He reportedly had traveled to Myanmar using his U.S. passport with his legal name. With regard to the second charge, reliable reports indicate that he was arrested before passing through customs and thus was never given the opportunity to declare currency. Lastly, the Myanmar embassy in the United States reportedly does not provide a formal process by which a Myanmar citizen can renounce his or her citizenship. During the first 17 days of his incarceration, Kyaw Zaw Lwin reportedly was denied U.S. consular access. During this time, according to his lawyers, he was deprived of food and sleep, beaten, and denied medical treatment. In December Kyaw Zaw Lwin reportedly undertook a hunger strike for several weeks during which time he was held in solitary confinement in an 8 by 10 foot military dog cell.