Youth for a cause

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

November 1990: Soe Myint (left) and Htin Kyaw Oo, outside the Barrackpore Court in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. - S. PATRONOBISH

November 1990: Soe Myint (left) and Htin Kyaw Oo, outside the Barrackpore Court in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal. - S. PATRONOBISH

AFTER keeping it pending for over a decade, the Court of the Sessions Judge at Barasat, a district town in North 24 Paraganas, West Bengal, will take up the case of the hijacking of a Thai airplane by Soe Myint and Htin Kyaw Oo, two Myanmarese youth.

In view of the great sympathy and support that the two received from the youth and student wings of the parties that constitute the Left Front, which rules West Bengal, the State government led by Jyoti Basu took a "lenient" view of the matter.

Speaking on the case, which is due to come up for hearing before the Barasat court in the first week of April, District Public Prosecutor Prabodh Roy said that the "accused has pleaded not guilty and has demanded a trial". West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, had sought Roy's opinion on the case. "I have given my opinion. After a decade there are so many problems in proceeding with the case; in my opinion the case should be withdrawn," Roy told Frontline. He argues that in the alleged hijacking of the Thai plane, there was no formal complaint either from the Thai government or from the Thai Airways authorities. None of the passengers or members of the crew had lodged any complaint. The hijacking took place in Thailand, and the plane was forced to land at the Netaji Subhash International airport in Kolkata. The Government of India did not hand over the accused to the Thai government; instead the officer-in-charge of the airport police station lodged a suo motu complaint. "The only people who can prove the case against the youth are the passengers and the crew. But the problem of tracing them and bringing them here to testify is almost insurmountable. The passengers are scattered all over the world, and some of the crew members must have retired by now. There is hardly any agency to trace them. None of them were interested in lodging any complaint in the first place. So neither the Thai government, nor the Myanmar government is taking interest in the present case. It only seems to be the headache of the Government of India," said Roy. However, he admits that technically the Indian government does have the legal right to prosecute the accused, because a part of the incident took place on Indian soil; the Government of India's sanction is necessary for prosecution under the Anti-hijacking Act. After landing, the two youth kept the plane under their control. The release of those on board could be effected by the West Bengal government only after negotiations.

Another important point that Roy raised is that though the passengers and pilots and other members of the crew were threatened, "there was no real intention to kill or cause serious bodily harm". The objects that were used to threaten the passengers and the crew were not explosives but soap-like substances, which on chemical examination in Kolkata turned out to be harmless. "It may be a case of criminal intimidation, it may be infantile, but there was no real intention to cause any injury or mischief to anybody inside the plane. It was done to save their lives from the hands of the military junta. Nothing more. It was also found that they circulated some pamphlets in the airport in Kolkata, with the intention of highlighting the situation in Myanmar. They knew India was sympathetic to the pro-democracy movement in their country. The only motive of the hijacking was to bring to the notice of the world the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. "We are fighting for the democracy in our country' was their slogan," said Roy. He referred to the close ties that India historically had with Myanmar and its people. "The pro-democracy leader, Aug San Suu Kyi, was awarded the Nehru Peace Prize. Moreover, before Independence, many Indians resided in Myanmar. Even the Azad Hind Force waged a battle in Burma for India's freedom. Now that the Myanmarese people are fighting for freedom and democracy, the question is what role India should play. Theirs is a great cause for human rights,'' said Roy. He maintains that his suggestion for withdrawing the case rests on these considerations too.

In the meantime, the court has served summons to the witnesses. The fate of the case depended on the West Bengal government's ability to persuade the Central government to withdraw the case," said Roy. Under the Anti-hijacking Act, the West Bengal government cannot withdraw the case without the consent of the Union government. If Soe Myint loses the case, he faces life imprisonment.

The Left in India has always had a sympathetic view of the case of the hijackers. When contacted, former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu told Frontline: "They were young people who were aspiring for freedom. After landing here they had expressed a desire to remain in India and pursue their studies. And since they did not harm anybody, we considered their case sympathetically and allowed them to stay and pursue their studies." During the tenure of the United Front government at the Centre, the then union Home Minister and Communist Party of India leader, the late Indrajit Gupta, wanted to withdraw the case against the two, but before he could do so, the coalition government fell. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and Lok Sabha member Somnath Chatterjee said: "Personally I will be happy if the case is withdrawn, and I feel that the Central government should treat the case sympathetically."

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