Prominent Burmese Activist Cancels Trip to US

By Aye Aye Win 16 September 2012

RANGOON — A prominent Burmese activist said Saturday that he is canceling a trip to the United States to receive a democracy award, to show solidarity with more than a dozen fellow activists whose applications for passports have apparently been denied.

Min Ko Naing was to be recognized by the National Endowment for Democracy as one of five Burma activists who have made significant contributions to the democracy movement in the former military-ruled country.

“I really value the award given by the National Endowment for Democracy, but I have decided not to travel to Washington to accept it,” Min Ko Naing told The Associated Press.

“On principle, I will not travel alone when my colleagues are denied their citizens’ rights,” he said. “We should be treated as equals and be given passports together.”

The ceremony is taking place Thursday in Washington, with a keynote speech to be given by Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most famous democracy crusader. She is to leave Sunday on her first U.S. trip since she was put under house arrest in 1990.

Min Ko Naing was a key leader of pro-democracy protests in 1988 and 2007. He spent most of the past 20 years as a political prisoner in solitary confinement until his release in January. Other activists endured similar sentences for participating in the protests, which were outlawed along with all dissent by the former military junta.

Authorities granted passports to Min Ko Naing and a handful of other prominent activists, including Ko Ko Gyi, also a high-profile leader of the 1988 student-led democracy rallies.

But nearly two dozen other pro-democracy activists have been left in limbo. Some applied for passports up to six months ago and have been told by the Home Ministry that their requests have been put on hold for a year, Ko Ko Gyi said.

Passports in Burma are generally issued within three weeks.

Zaw Thet Htwe, a journalist who was imprisoned under the junta and freed in January, said he was given no formal reason for not getting a passport. But he was told informally that he and others were under surveillance for a year because they had been let out of prison early and authorities wanted to keep an eye on them, he said.

Over the last year, President Thein Sein’s government has spearheaded unprecedented change in Burma, relaxing decades of harsh rule and allowing freedoms previously unheard of in the Southeast Asian nation, which is also called Burma. But major challenges remain. Rights groups say human rights abuses continue, rule of law is weak and corruption remains strong.

The four others being recognized for the 2012 Democracy Award include Hkun Htun Oo, the leader of an ethnic Shan political party who was jailed for many years, and film actor-director turned activist Kyaw Thu, who leads a social organization called the Free Funeral Service Society.

Also being honored are Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen doctor who provides medical care on the Thai side of the border for more than 50,000 people from Burma every year, and Aung Din, a leader of the 1988 student movement and former political prisoner who is now director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma.