Mae Sot (Mizzima) – As the statements of 34 Arakanese and Karen rebels were finally submitted to a Kolkata court on September 17, Burmese pro-democracy groups continue to proclaim the defendants innocence amid questions as to where they will be able to live if released. Twenty-four members of the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) and ten from the Karen National Union (KNU) have been incarcerated in India for over 11 years – six years without any charges being filed against them, for allegedly attempting to smuggle weapons to Indian insurgent groups.
However, according to the defendants, they were framed and betrayed by Indian military officials in an operation that included the murder of six of their leaders. According to the First Information Report (FIR) dated February 18, 1998, documented with the police by the navy, “Hard intelligence was received that a consignment of arms, ammunition and equipment was being brought [to Landfall Island to then be shipped] illegally to terrorist/militant outfits in northeastern states of India.”
However, the defendants claim they had an agreement with a Lt. Col. Grewal of Indian intelligence to aid them in their struggle against the Burmese military regime and had been invited to the island, where they were initially warmly greeted by Indian military officials.
Claims that the detainees are members of the pro-democracy movement have been backed up countless times by numerous Burmese political and human rights organizations in addition to a late Indian Intelligence Officer from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), BB Nandy, who wrote articles in The Statesman, an Indian paper, saying the rebels were helping Indian intelligence spy on Chinese movements around the Coco Islands.
The case was picked up in 1999 by human rights lawyer Nandita Haksar, who later wrote a book about it, entitled, Rogue Agent: How India’s Military Intelligence Betrayed The Burmese Resistance. According to Haksar, Lt. Col. Grewal had promised “they [the rebels] would get Landfall Island as a base on which they could operate and carry out their insurgency against the Burmese regime.
According to Haksar, a day after their arrival at Landfall Island, “On the pretence of welcoming senior Indian army officers, [Grewal] took six leaders, who had been disarmed, into the jungle, where they were shot.”Several of the defendants claim to have observed signs that there were Burmese generals on the island at the time, which has given rise to speculation about the Burmese junta’s involvement with Grewal from the beginning, she added.
Haksar believes, “It is possible they tried to hand them over [to the Burmese generals] and in that process they got shot.” Last week, Chief Judge Smt Kalpana Dey of Kolkata’s City Sessions Court asked each of the defendants individually to present their statements in response to the accusations.
According to Akshay Sharma, one of the lawyers representing the defendants, “In general, the reply from the accused side has been that this story is false and there was no such operation [as stated by the prosecution].”
Furthermore, the accused remain adamant “they are not criminals or gun runners, but political freedom fighters. They have no animosity or bad intentions against the Indian government or the people of India.” The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is leading the prosecution, is largely basing their claims on the original FIR and a charge sheet that was filed in 2004, six years after the arrests and over five years delinquent according to Indian law.
While the prosecution produced a total of 20 witnesses during the trial that began in January 2007, Tapaswi Partha, the prosecution lawyer, did not want to comment on the outcome of the proceedings, saying, “It will be proved by the evidence.” “It will depend on the evidence that is produced by the witnesses. I have not received the list of defence witnesses,” Partha related.
One figure surprisingly not taking any part in the trial is Lt. Col. Grewal, who was honorably discharged by the Indian Army and is widely believed to be living in Rangoon with his family.
Haksar said, “Not only has he not appeared in court, he has disappeared from India. Actually, I’ve heard very reliable reports from two or three sources that he is an informer in Yangon [Rangoon].”
The next stage of the trial will take place on November 11 and 12, when the defense will be given the opportunity to produce their witnesses. The number of defense witnesses brought to court for questioning is yet to be confirmed, but Sharma expects it could be between three to six persons, including leaders of the Burmese democracy movement.
The number could perhaps have been much higher, but many relevant witnesses, particularly members of the Burmese resistance groups who were involved in early negotiations with Indian authorities, will be unable to attend due to travel restrictions. One such figure is Dr. Khin Maung, president of NUPA. Dr. Khin Maung once tried to meet Haksar in Delhi, but on his way was picked up by military intelligence and prohibited from making the appointment.
“AA [Arakan Army] had planned to store both combat and non-combat materials on the Andaman Islands and transfer them to Arakan State, the Karen National Liberation Army [armed wing of the KNU] and the Irrawaddy delta,” explained the doctor. “They are absolutely not gun-runners. They are freedom fighters. They are fighting for human rights and democracy in Burma,” he added.
Dr. Khin Maung also expressed his disappointment with Indian authorities for the way the prisoners have been treated since their arrest. “Indian authorities treated our men as enemies before knowing the true story and this is unfair. It may be due to either the misinformation of Col. Grewal or an effort to disguise their mistake,” he said.
“They should be immediately released. The Indian government has known the real facts all along. If they continue the case, it will be an unjust violation of human rights,” he continued. Following the session in November there will be a hearing for final arguments prior to judgment – a process which observers say could take any length of time.
But the question still remains as to where the 34 detainees could live in safety, even if they are acquitted and released. According to Sharma, “They should not be sent back to Burma or handed over to the junta or they will be eliminated.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), along with most Western governments, has so far refused to intervene to recognize the freedom fighters as refugees because they were armed rebels.
Haksar said, “The argument that they’re part of an armed struggle doesn’t make sense because these countries have knowingly helped many people that are part of such struggles. They are stuck.” East Timor has verbally promised leaders of the Burmese democracy movement that it is willing to offer asylum to these Arakanese and Karens, while the Czech Republic also earlier this year agreed in principle to do the same – though the offer is contingent upon the UNHCR recognizing them as refugees.
“I feel that what we need is the UNHCR to do to its bit. Unless we get them to another state which can give them shelter, they will be in for another ten to fifteen years,” Haksar estimated.
Over the past week, many echoes have been heard within the Burmese pro-democracy movement calling for the unconditional release of the prisoners. Aung Marm Oo, the general secretary of the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress (AASYC), has been following the case since the beginning and helped coordinate a global day of action, led by Burma Campaign UK, in June of this year which saw protests take place at Indian embassies around the world.
“We feel that as a democratic country, which openly supports t
he democratic process in Burma, India should see that these people are not terrorists, they are members of the pro-democracy movement,” espoused Aung Marm Oo.
“Moreover,” he continued, “India is seen as a largely incorrupt country with a fair legal system, so the many years that our comrades have spent in detention without trial is unacceptable and should be recognized as a severe injustice.”
Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK in London told Mizzima, “India’s position makes no sense in terms of justice, or politics. Their reputation is being damaged by their treatment of these freedom fighters. They should be released immediately.”
As for the 34 Burmese, they have not given up their aspiration for justice, believing they have paid a heavy price for their struggle for democracy in Burma.
“I want justice – I have spent 11 years in detention,” proclaimed Danya Linn, one of the 34, in his statement submitted to the court.
by J.J. Kim, Mizzima.COM, 24 September 2009 00:58