Karen Leader Gets Life Sentence

Burmese authorities risk damaging fragile ceasefire talks.
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General Mutu Say Poe (C) toasts with Aung Min (2nd L) ahead of talks between KNU and the government in Hpa-An city in Karen state, Jan. 11, 2012.

A Burmese court on Tuesday sentenced an ethnic Karen leader to life in prison for treason, sparking concerns that the move could wreck efforts to forge a lasting peace between the rebel Karen National Union (KNU) and Burma’s central government.

Nyein Maung, a member of the KNU’s central committee, was handed a 20-year term, considered a life sentence in Burma, with an additional three years given for associating with an “illegal organization,” sources said.

Western governments have made ceasefire agreements between Burma’s nominally civilian government and the KNU and other separatist ethnic armies a precondition to the lifting of sanctions that had targeted Burma’s former military junta.

Nyein Maung’s lawyer Kyi Min said that his 70-year-old client was “surprised” by the sentence, which was handed down by a special court convened in Burma’s notorious Insein prison.

“He is physically okay, but he is surprised and very, very upset,” Kyi Min said.

“He answered only ‘yes, yes’ to some of my questions, and didn’t reply at all when I asked him if he wanted to appeal the sentence.”

Burma’s government reached preliminary ceasefire agreements with the KNU and other groups in late 2011 and early this year in what analysts have described as a “fragile” peace process that is still incomplete.

Possible amnesty seen

Agreements already reached should have protected Nyein Maung, who was arrested last year in Burma after being deported from China, from prosecution, KNU negotiator David Htaw said.

“When [Nyein Maung] was first charged, the KNU had not yet officially entered talks,” Htaw said. “But now we are under the terms of an agreement, so we shouldn’t be considered an illegal organization.”

“He should be released, and I believe that [Burma’s] President Thein Sein will let him go under an amnesty,” Htaw said.

Whether Nyein Maung’s continued incarceration will harm the peace process “will depend on both sides,” he said.

Saw Hla Ngwe, joint secretary of the KNU’s military wing, said that when Burmese railways minister and presidential envoy Aung Min met last year in talks with the KNU, Aung Min said that Nyein Maung would soon be released.

“But now he has been sentenced, and this discredits what the minister told us,” Ngwe said.

“This makes us very uneasy,” he said.

Reported by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese service. Translations by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Richard Finney.