UNHCR to Interview Jailed Burmese Rebels in Kolkata

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been granted permission by the Indian government to send a team to meet and interview 34 Burmese rebels in Presidency Prison in the West Bengali capital of Kolkata in order to determine the jailed rebels’ suitability for refugee status.

"The UNHCR office in India has granted access to interview the Myanmar nationals currently in detention in Kolkata to carry out refugee status determination," said a spokeswoman for the UNHCR office in New Delhi.


The 34 Burmese detainees after they were sentenced in July, 2010. (PHOTO: Narinjara)

The process has been ongoing since Jan. 5, and 16 of the 34 rebels have already been interviewed, she said.

On July 12, 2010, a court in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, sentenced the 34 Burmese exiles to 15 months imprisonment and a fine of 6,000 rupees [US $130] each, after they had spent more than 10 years behind bars on charges related to insurgency.

The Solidarity Committee for Burma’s Freedom Fighters in New Delhi has requested the Indian authorities not to send the detainees back to Burma where they would most likely face severe punishment.

Though it is unclear if and when the Indian government will release the detainees, democracy activists in India say they hope that the government will hand them over to the UNHCR.

Tint Swe, a New Delhi-based minister with the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the Burmese government in exile, said that giving the UNHCR access to the detainees shows a change in the Indian government’s policy toward the case.

"This is a result of our approach to the UNHCR and the Human Rights Council," he said. "They made contact directly with the Indian External Affairs office and Home Ministry, and as a result, they got access to the detainees.

"If the detainees meet the requirements of the UNHCR, they will be recognized as refugees," he added. "Their freedom still lies in the hands of the Indian government. However, the detainees are overjoyed that a ray of hope has appeared."

The rebels were arrested in 1998 in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during a joint Indian military exercise codenamed "Operation Leech," which also netted a large cache of arms, ammunition and explosives. The 34 are members of the National United Party of Arakan and of the Karen National Union.

The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation charged the 34 detainees with possessing invalid papers, smuggling weapons and explosives, and attempting to sell them to insurgents in northeastern India.

Held without charge for more than eight years in the Andaman islands, the detainees claim they had reached a deal with Indian intelligence allowing them to establish a base on Landfall Island in the Nicobar and Andaman archipelago in exchange for providing intelligence on Chinese naval activities in the Andaman Sea. They have said they asked India not to send them back to Burma.

They claim the deal was brokered by Indian intelligence officials, but after the intervention by the Burmese military regime, the Indian authorities killed six of the rebel leaders one day after the Burmese group arrived on Landfall Island.

India was previously a supporter of the democracy movement in Burma, but in the early 1990s introduced its "Look East Policy" to counter Chinese influence in the region. Closer relations were developed between India and the Burmese junta, trade subsequently increased, and India began supplying the Burmese regime with military hardware.

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