Tuesday, April 22, 2003

why now?

Twelve years ago, Burmese activist Soe Myint hijacked an aircraft. He was never prosecuted . . . until now.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2003).

ONE APRIL MORNING last year, police stormed the home of Soe Myint--a Burmese exile living in India--and arrested him for hijacking a flight, a charge that could lead to a life sentence.

Myint, who looks more like the president of Harvard's young Asian-Republicans' club than a terrorist, has spent the last 12 years peacefully working as a journalist in India. But it is true that in 1990, at the age of 21, he hijacked a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Rangoon. He was "armed" with a Laughing Buddha statue, which he claimed was a bomb. En route to Calcutta, Soe Myint and his accomplice told the passengers about what had driven them to seize the aircraft.

"We wanted to explain what was really happening in Burma, because at that time all the media attention was focused on the Gulf War," Soe Myint recalls nearly 12 years later over a lunch of pizza and fried chicken in New Delhi.

Two years before the hijacking, Soe Myint had witnessed the brutality of the military at firsthand when it seized back control of Burma, killing an estimated 3,000 protesters and supporters of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. "I saw soldiers shoot down people indiscriminately." Outside Burma, the deaths were quickly forgotten.

By the time Soe Myint hijacked the flight in 1990, the situation had deteriorated. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, but her party had still swept that year's general election. The junta refused to hand over power. "The international community was silent," says Soe Myint. And so he hijacked an aircraft.

It's hard today to recall a time when hijackers might have been thought of as anything other than terrorists. But this was the age of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, not of September 11. Soe Myint believed that people might sympathize with them. "We thought: Either we will be killed, or we will be cheered."

The young men were cheered. India allowed the hijackers to hold the press conferences they requested. Charges were framed, but the men were freed on bail. More than 30 members of parliament--including the current defence minister, George Fernandes--signed petitions requesting that the charges be dropped. "We were put in jail for three months only," says Soe Myint.


Then, last April, the police came for Soe Myint. "It's still a mystery," he says. Fernandes has assured him that the order didn't come from the central government, and West Bengal officials say the state has no interest in prosecuting him. "Nobody is taking responsibility," Soe Myint says. At his trial, his lawyer will argue that he innocent of the charge of hijacking, because he used no weapons and the pilots willingly "diverted" the aircraft to Calcutta.

So why now? Soe Myint believes it's because of his work as a journalist for stations like Radio Free Asia and for his role in an Internet news service that allows dissident reporters within Burma to make their voices heard. "We have reporters who are exposing human-rights violations in Burma," he says. "Many of them are also close to the opposition movement, the resistance movement."

Throughout the 1990s, India supported the pro-democracy movement. But lately relations have warmed with Burma, culminating in the visit of then-Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh to Rangoon in 2002. A week later, Soe Myint was arrested. "The people who arrested me were not interested in the hijacking," he says. "They were interested in my news sources. But I cannot reveal the names of my reporters, or they will definitely be jailed." The Indian authorities have not commented officially on the timing of Soe Myint's arrest.

Calm before his trial begins on April 2, Soe Myint has few regrets. "Whatever I do, I do for a political cause. So even if India decides to put me in jail I will be ready to face it. I am proud of what I did 12 years ago, and I'm proud of what I'm doing now. I had many chances to leave India . . . but I didn't choose that way."