Mainstream

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > No End to the Injustice: Statement Of The Solidarity Committee For Burma’s (...)

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 36, August 28, 2010

No End to the Injustice: Statement Of The Solidarity Committee For Burma’s Freedom Fighters

Thursday 2 September 2010

(This statement was issued on July 20, 2010 but could not be carried earlier due to unavoidable reasons.)

After more than twelve years of struggling to get justice in Indian courts 34 Burmese freedom fighters are still in prison even though the case in court has finished. The question is: why?

The saga of the struggle of the 34 Burmese freedom fighters never caught the imagination of the media except in the beginning of their detention because these are men who have no faces. They are ordinary men who lived ordinary lives in small towns and villages in Burma trying to eke out a living from cultivation, fishing, petty trading and some were students studying in secular colleges and schools while some were student monks. As members of large families struggling to survive in their country which has been under the most brutal military dictatorship since 1962 when Gen Ne Win overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister of Union of Burma, U Nu.

These men did not dream of being heroes or revolutionaries. They wanted to live ordinary lives as sons, brothers, fathers and as citizens. But the daily repression of living under military rule made them witnesses to horrendous crimes: the burning down of villages, the rape of women and girls, the forcing of people to give free labour to the Army and the utter devastation of the village and town economy. Personal experiences and daily experience forced each of these men to leave their dreams of living ordinary lives and join the resistance against the military junta.

The majority of these 34 are Buddhists from the Arakan State bordering the Chittagong State of Bangladesh while 10 are Karens from the Karen State on the Thai-Burma border. These people joined the local armed resistance. The Arakans and Karens had been fighting both the repression of Army rule and the internal repression of the majority community, the Burmans. However, as the days passed all the ethnic resistance groups gave up their demands for separation or secession and joined with the Burman groups to form a common platform to fight for a democratic Union of Burma in which there would be room for all the ethnic nationalities. All of them accepted the overall leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Burmese resistance turned to India for support and succour and expected that democratic India would provide them assistance and solidarity. India has welcomed many Burmese refugees and even conferred India’s highest award to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nehru Award for International Understanding. Away from public eyes the Indian intelligence agencies allowed the Burmese resistance groups to have camps in Mizoram and operate from there. These camps were under the supervision of the RAW. At one time the officer from the RAW in charge of the Arakan resistance groups was B.B. Nundy. Mr Nundy, who died recently, wrote articles in various newspapers, including The Statesman, that these Arakans were not involved in any anti-Indian activities and in fact they had helped the Indian intelligence agencies with information on the North-East insurgents as well as the movement of the Chinese in the Indian Ocean.

When the Arakans asked for a base in the Andaman Islands the RAW put the Arakans in touch with the Military Intelligence. The MI put Lt Col G.S. Grewal on the job and the Arakans deputed Saw Tun to negotiate. Lt Col Grewal was born in Burma and spoke Burmese fluently. He knew the Burmese resistance groups in Delhi, Mizoram and Manipur. He was “Uncle” to most Burmese and welcomed into the refugee homes and treated to Burmese delicacies.

Lt Col Grewal was in constant touch with the Arakan insurgent group, both in India and at their headquarters at Bangkok. He took advantage of his assignment to fulfil his love of good food at expensive restaurants, foreign whiskey and trips to exotic tourist destinations—all at the cost of the Arakanese. Saw Tun was the silent witness to the greed and corruption of the Indian military intelligence officer.

Lt Col Grewal told the Burmese that the Indian Government had agreed to their request for a base in the Andaman Islands and they were to be given Landfall Island for the purpose. The Island is the northernmost island in the Andman Islands, just half-an-hour helicopter away from the Chinese base at Coco Island leased from the Myanmar junta.

The Burmese landed at Landfall Island on February 10, 1998. Lt Col Grewal received them with a great deal of warmth and the Burmese and Indian Army officers shared a hearty meal and there was general bonhomie all around. The next day Grewal told the Burmese that senior Indian officers would be coming to meet them and picked six seniormost leaders to accompany him to the forest area where he said the helicopter would land at the helipad. The six leaders walked with him and the rest of the group saw them disappear into the heavily wooded area.

Then hell broke lose. The remaining Burmese freedom fighters were captured by the Indian soldiers under the command of one officer, their hands tied behind their backs, their bandanas used as blindfolds and then they heard the shots. Their leaders had been killed and the rest arrested.

From that day the 34 Burmese have been in various jails beginning with the Army detention camp at Nicobar, then at Port Blair and presently at Presidency Correctional Home, Alipur, Kolkata. They all thought it was a terrible mistake and they would soon be released. Despite the fact the media did raise serious doubts about the Army version that these people were gunrunners, the CBI did not file any chargesheet. For six years they just wasted their young lives rotting away in Port Blair.

An Indian human rights organisation did send a lawyer to help them but the lawyer was roughed up and could not even meet his clients despite a court order allowing him to interview them. The Burmese community in exile approached Ms Nandita Haksar, human rights lawyer, and she approached the UNHCR. One of the leaders who had been murdered was a recognised refugee of the UNHCR; so the UNHCR financed the first trip of Ms Haksar and on that occasion she managed to get them out on bail but the administration rearrested them and kept them under administrative detention. But the trips to the Andamans were expensive even if Ms Haksar was doing the case pro bono.

A local lawyer, Ms T. Vasanda, looked after the case and regularly appeared in court till the time she was brutally murdered in the afternoon in 2004. Finally Ms Haksar filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking the court to discharge the case since no chargesheet had been filed. The next month the CBI filed a charge-sheet. That was in December 2005.

The chargesheet did not mention Lt Col Grewal at all. In any case he had taken an honourable discharge from the Indian Army and was involved in ruby trade in Rangoon where it was reported that he had been given a large and comfortable home by the junta. The CBI stated that the investigation into the death of the six leaders was still being done.

The Burmese then filed a petition asking for a transfer of their case to Kolkata because of problems of engaging lawyers and conducting a trial so far from their own community. It took another two years but the case was transferred in October 2006 and the 34 men were shipped to Presidency Correctional Home, Alipur at Kolkata.

The trial did not begin because intelligence agencies tried to stop a trial in open court fearing media attention would expose their vile games. They even engineered a riot inside the jail and tried to get a direction that the trial be conducted in camera inside the jail premises.

IT was at this juncture that Lt Lakshmi Sehgal took the initiative to form this Solidarity Committee for Burma’s Freedom Fighters and invited the following persons to be its members: Surendra Mohan, Ashok Mitra, Sumit Chakravartty, Sujato Bhadra and Nandita Haksar. The Committee has been helping the 34 Burmese in whatever ways, especially to make their stay in the jail a little more comfortable.

Despite the fact that the Supreme Court had directed that the trial be held on a day-to-day basis and as expeditiously as possible there were long delays. Judges were transferred and new ones not appointed for more than six months; prosecution witnesses did not turn up and adjournments.

Finally the prosecution witnesses’ testimonies were over. Not even one witness as much as alleged that the Burmese freedom fighters were in any way involved in gunrunning or any activity that was against the interests of India. The eye witnesses were two Army officers who denied knowing Lt Col Grewal.

The defence produced five witnesses: The first defence witness was Ms Nandita Haksar on behalf of the Solidarity Committee. She put on record all the original letters from Burmese resistance groups such as the Ethnic Nationalities Council, National League for Democracy, Karen National Union and many others stating that the 34 were genuine Burmese freedom fighters.

She also put on record an article written by B.B. Nundy about the Arakanese.

The second defence witness was U Harn Yawnghe, the son of the first President of the Union of Burma, who was an ethnic Shan. He testified that the 34 were genuine freedom fighters and that is why his organisation and he had been able to raise money to meet the legal expenses. The money was channelised through the Euro-Burma Group for meeting the expenses for the travel of the two Delhi trial court lawyers conducting the trial, Siddharth Agarwal and Akshaya Sharma. He said if there was even a suspicion that the 34 were not a part of the Burmese resistance the Europenas would never have provided the funds because Europe had the strictest audit rules.

The third defence witness was Dr Tint Swe, a doctor by profession. He had left his practice at the time of the national uprising in August 1988 and joined Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party. He had stood for elections and won but when the military junta refused to hand over power to the democratically elected representatives of the people he along with thousands had to flee the country. Their leader was under house arrest, other MPs were arrested, tortured and some even executed.

Dr Tint Swe has been living in India since 1990 and is a recognised refugee under the mandate of the UNHCR. He too testified that these 34 were indeed genuine freedom fighters. He also testified that he personally knew Lt Col Grewal who had similarly betrayed other Burmese to the Myanmar junta.

The fourth defence witness was Soumen Lahiri, the Public Relations Officer of the West Bengal Sports and Youth Department. He testified that the his department had organised a Solidarity Football between the East Bengal team and Mizzima Football team in April 2008 in solidarity with the 34 Burmese freedom fighters. He produced the tickets and pamphlets brought out on the occasion. The entire Left Front had witnessed the event and Com Biman Basu had given a rousing speech promising to do all he could to get the release of the Burmese freedom fighters.

In fact the Mizzima team had been allowed to visit the 34 Burmese freedom fighters in jail and they had all burst into a song—the song was composed during the national uprising of August 8, 1988 and is now banned in Burma.

The judge who had heard both the prosecution and defence witnesses was transferred and a new judge appointed. This meant he had no knowledge of all that preceded him and once again it would take time to fix the dates for the final hearing. Besides, there was no guarantee that the CBI would not file appeals and there would be more time spent from going to the High Court to the Supreme Court. The Burmese could be dragged from court to court for another five-to-six years.

Till that point there was no hope of getting the Burmese out of jail since the UNHCR had not issued even a certificate under consideration to them despite repeated requests, lobbying and appeals from the Burmese community in exile. But after the Solidarity Committee’s intervention the UNHCR, in violation of their usual procedures, issued each Burmese a certificate under consideration in 2009. This meant that the Burmese could be released and use the certificates as identification papers and protection from both deportation and continued detention for violation of the Foreigners Act.

In these circumstances the 34 Burmese freedom fighters agreed with the proposition to enter into plea bargaining. This was a new provision in the CrPC which allowed for plea bargaining at the stage of charges as well as sentencing. In any case the 34 had spent more years in detention than they would even if convicted under the offenses thay had been charges with. Under the law they could be sentenced to a maximum of seven years for Arms Act but they had already spent five-and-a-half years in judicial custody and six years under administrative detention.

The CBI took its time to get permission to enter plea bargaining. It suited them because it saved them any embarrassment if a judgement was given in which the judge could make observations about their lack of investigation on the killing of the six leaders and many other anomalies that had been exposed during the cross examination.

The plea bargaining proceedings were complete and filed before the court on July 6, 2010. The final judgement was given on July 12. The judge, new to the proceedings, disposed of the case but imposed a fine of Rs 6000 on each one. This meant the Burmese community would have to raise more than two lakh rupees. The funding agencies had already told the Burmese that they could no longer finance the legal case which was proving to be very expensive.

The Burmese freedom fighters then filed an application that the bail money they had deposited at Port Blair should be made available to them. At the time they were transferred the Chief Judicial Magistrate had directed the money be transferred to Kolkata but that direction had not been enforced. But the Sessions Court dismissed the application.

The West Bengal Government and the Left Front Government had no objection to the release of the Burmese after the fine was paid but the police and jail authorities objected to the release on the ground that the Burmese did not have valid travel documents. They refused to accept the UNHCR certificates. In Delhi thousands of refugees from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Somalia, and of course Burma, live with the protection of this one certificate by the UNHCR. The UNHCR issues a final certificate only after interviewing each individual and that process takes several years because of the pressure of more than 600 Burmese arrivals every month.

The West, so quick to criticise the Indian policy on Myanmar, has done precious little for the 34 Burmese. The Solidarity Committee and the Burmese resistance groups have contacted several High Commissions and Embassies but no one is willing to offer rehabilitation to the Burmese freedom fighters.

The 34 Burmese freedom fighters are just face-less heroes who have been resisting one of the world’s worst military dictatorships and they are treated as mere pawns in the international power politics where the West pretends to care for democratic rights but betrays genuine freedom fighters because of compulsions of the market and promise of natural resources.

Will these 34 Burmese freedom fighters die in independent and democratic India’s prison? The corporate media, Indian political parties, human rights groups and Indian intellectuals need to ask themselves the question and work for the earliest possible release of these brave men who have maintained their dignity and humanity for 12 long years. This is our appeal from our Committee.

[Note: If you want to know the whole story of the 34 Burmese freedom fighters you can read a book—Rogue Agent: How the Indian Military Intelligence Betrayed Burmese Resistance by Nandita Haksar—published by
Penguin India in February 2009.]

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted