A Burmese court sentenced American democracy activist Kyaw Zaw Lwin, also know as Nyi Nyi Aung, to three years imprisonment in Rangoon on February 10.

Lwin was arrested upon landing in Rangoon International Airport on September 3, 2009 on his way to visiting his ill mother, an incarcerated democracy activist.

Nyi Nyi Aung was convicted of forging a national ID card, failing to declare $USD 2,000 to Customs and breaching Burma’s immigration law by not informing authorities of his renunciation of Burmese citizenship. He was initially given a five year jail term with hard labour, later commuted to three years.

Nyi Nyi Aung’s Maryland-based fiancé, Wawa Maw, called on the United States Government to intervene immediately and demand Nyi Nyi Aung’s freedom. “The junta is looking to stifle Nyi Nyi just as they have the 2,100 other political prisoners in Burma,” she said.

The sentencing follows a series of actions by authorities against Nyi Nyi Aung which violate international and domestic Burmese law, including torture, denial of access to U.S. consular officials and family visitation rights.

Human rights groups have condemned the sentence for being politically motivated.  In a public statement, the Washington D.C.-based rights group Freedom Now President Jared Gesner said that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must “make Nyi Nyi’s release a priority in the U.S. government’s relations with Burma.” The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) declared the outcome an example of the Burmese military’s “blatant display for disregard of law and justice.”

The implications of Nyi Nyi’s sentencing may have huge implications for U.S. President Barack Obama’s recently adopted policy of direct engagement with the junta. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman, Howard L. Berman, expressed his disappointment in the verdict in light of the Obama administration’s approach of direct engagement. Mr. Berman said that unless Nyi Nyi Aung is released immediately, “the U.S. Departments of State and Treasury should consider tightening sanctions on the Burmese regime.”[1]

In an attempt to imprison Nyi Nyi Aung for breaching the country’s State Protection Law and Emergency Act, Burma’s military rulers had previously attempted to charge Nyi Nyi Aung with the more serious crime of supplying equipment and conspiring to plan and undertake acts of terrorism within and outside of Burma, but failed due to a lack of evidence.

Foreign prisoners are usually housed in Rangoon’s Insein Prison, but it is unclear as to whether authorities will move Nyi Nyi Aung to another prison as part of an attempt to prevent the case from attracting further attention.

Burma is scheduled to hold its first elections in 20 years on a unchosen date in 2010 in what critics claim is an attempt by the military regime to legitimise itself as the country’s sole ruling party, following its refusal to honour results in 1990 where the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi won more than 80 per cent of the nation’s parliamentary seats. The jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner is barred by the country’s constitution from contesting the polls.

[1] “Berman Urges Burmese Junta to Release Imprisoned American, Calls on U.S. Administration to Appoint Envoy and Consider More Sanctions”, United States House of Representatives Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, February 10, 2010. http://www.internationalrelations.house.gov/press_display.asp?id=710