A case revived

Print edition : April 11, 2003

The trial of Soe Myint, who with Kyaw Oo hijacked an airplane 12 years ago in an act of defiance against the military government in Myanmar, is set to begin soon. Does his re-arrest indicate a shift in New Delhi's policy towards the regime in Yangon?

ON November 11, 1990, when Soe Myint and Htin Kyaw Oo were arrested at the Kolkata airport, it was obvious that they were not perturbed by the consequences of their action - the hijacking of the Thai International Airways TG-305 airplane, which was flying from Bangkok to Yangon, carrying 220 passengers. The next day, smiling and waving at the crowd outside the court of the Subdivisional Judicial Magistrate at Barrackpore, Myint said: "I am greatly inspired. I never expected to get such a spontaneous response. I am sure our dreams will come true." Htin Kyaw Oo ruefully added: "Even my girlfriend does not know I am in India. I long to go back home but I am afraid of being executed by the military." Their exuberance showed the nationalistic zeal which led them to undertake their mission.

Soe Myint addresses a press conference in New Delhi on March 13.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Now, sitting in his New Delhi office, 35-year-old Myint recalls somberly how over the past 13 years he has been carrying on his campaign against the military junta, which rules Myanmar (Burma). Myint has set up an Internet news service named Mizzima (Pali word meaning `middle path'). The news agency, which currently has 1,500 e-mail subscribers, has been a source of information on the military government's atrocities. It releases news in the Burmese and English languages. However, with the Indian government reviving the hijacking case against Myint, the future of the news agency seems bleak. The trial of Myint will start in April. Said his lawyer Nandita Haksar: "If found guilty, he will be given the sentence of life imprisonment. Now it is up to the West Bengal government to withdraw the case and strengthen the pro-democracy forces in Burma."

Recalling the hijacking, Myint says: "We had no option before us. We were desperate to draw the world's attention to the plight of our people. We decided to do something dramatic to attract the attention of the world media." Myint hijacked the airplane using a laughing Buddha statue wrapped in tissue paper, which he claimed was a bomb. The hijackers earned the goodwill of the people, many of whom supported their cause. Says Myint: "We asked for permission for a press conference from the Indian government. They were very sympathetic and gave us permission to hold two press conferences." The demands put forward by them included the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi; the withdrawal of martial law and the abolition of all military tribunals; the reopening of the universities, which were closed down after the 1988 military coup; and the handing over of power to the National League for Democracy, which scored a landslide victory in the 1990 general elections.

Myint recalls how Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, had assured them of asylum status from the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The Thai Airways did not file a complaint or make any further enquiries about the case. On the Indian side, more than 30 Members of Parliament appealed to Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar to grant Myint political asylum.

Myint and Kyaw Oo were released in February 1991, after spending three months in jail. They were recognised as refugees under the mandate of the UNHCR. The charge-sheet stated that the two hijackers were not armed. It was clear that the Indian government was sympathetic to the pro-democracy forces of Myanmar and that it was willing to take a lenient view.

The case has been pending in the Second Additional District and Sessions Court, Barasat, 24 Parganas, for the past 12 years. In 1995, the Public Prosecutor had recommended to the West Bengal government that the case be withdrawn. The State government requested the Ministry of Civil Aviation to withdraw the case. Recently, the Public Prosecutor recommended the withdrawal of the case on the grounds that there was little chance of getting sufficient evidence to prosecute Myint, since the Thai Airways crew was unlikely to appear in the court.

Ignoring these recommendations, in April 2002, the West Bengal police arrested Myint at midnight from his residence in Delhi. Myint's supporters said that the arrest was an example of the present government's lenient approach towards the military government. They point out that Myint was arrested in the same week when External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh returned from his visit to Myanmar, on April 3 and 4.

When he hijacked the airplane, Myint was a 22-year-old final year degree student in Rangoon University, where he was studying International Relations and International Administration. Kyaw Oo was a final year degree student of Physics in 1988, when the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar was being crushed by a brutal army repression. Myint decided to go to the Thai-Myanmar border and join the students who were engaged in organising resistance to the military rule. He was among a group of 50 persons who crossed the border on a boat. Recalls Myint: "It took us two nights and the boatman did not take money from us."

In 1989, the military put pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi under house arrest for five years. Her National League for Democracy had campaigned vigorously and won 81 per cent of the parliamentary seats. However, the military backed the National Unity Party, which won a mere 2 per cent of the votes. The military refused to hand over power to the elected representatives. For Myint and the other students on the Thai-Myanmar border, hopes of returning home faded. It was in this mood of growing frustration that the student groups decided to hijack planes to refocus international attention on Myanmar.

The first such attempt, when some students hijacked a Burmese Airways plane flying from Myanmar to Thailand, proved successful. They demanded the revocation of martial law, the release of political prisoners and the restoration of democracy. The Thai government released Ye Yint and Ye Thiha, the students who carried out the hijack, after they were pardoned by the Thai King.

Myint and his friends were overwhelmed by India's sympathetic response to their pro-democracy campaign. Meanwhile, Myint got offers for further studies from foreign universities. Kyaw Oo took up one such offer and is now in Europe. Although the case against him has been revived, Myint does not regret staying back in India. He said: "India is very important for us. Its proximity to Myanmar makes it an important place to carry our campaign forward. Until now successive Indian governments have remained sympathetic to our cause. I hope that the West Bengal government will take back the case and help us."

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