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Refugee's pain replaced with pride

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 2:58 a.m. HST, Jul 30, 2011

John Nyunt figures he'll have three to five minutes to tell his story, 10 if he's really lucky.

He could be afforded an entire afternoon and it wouldn't be enough to convey to his Capitol Hill audience just the reasons why he so boldly stood up to the military government in Myanmar all those years ago, or the fortitude it took to survive the seven dehumanizing years he spent as a political prisoner, or the joy he now feels as a full-fledged American citizen.

But he'll try.

Nyunt, 58, is one of 50 refugees selected to represent their adopted state at the first Refugee Congress, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Washington. The historic gathering, organized by the United Nations Refugee Agency, is intended to shed light on the grim political and social realities of the various countries from which the refugees fled as well as the refugees' contributions to their new country.

"I will have to summarize my thoughts," Nyunt said. "But I want people to know that I am very happy to be in a country where there is democracy and where I can speak freely about my experiences."

Nyunt is an assistant manager at 7-Eleven, a job for which he is grateful but also one that is far removed from his old standing as a widely respected lawyer and political activist in what was then known as the Socialist Republic of Burma. Although many of the details of his previous life have been lost to time and his own proclivity to focus on the present, his recollection of the spirit that drove him and his fellow activists to risk beatings, imprisonment and death remains pristine.

Nyunt's first name originally was Khin, but he changed it to John. He was a young but influential community leader in the summer of 1988 when student-led protests in Yangon galvanized a restless citizenry against the entrenched socialist government. Shrugging off harassment and the occasional beating by police, Nyunt addressed the rapidly growing crowds every day, imploring his fellow citizens to be courageous in their pursuit of democracy.

Away from the podium, Nyunt threw his support behind the National League for Democracy and its charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The demonstrations ended with a violent military coup, the repeal of Burma's constitution and the imposition of martial law. And while Suu Kyi's party won a convincing 59 percent of votes in a 1990 democratic election (ensuring 80 percent of Parliament seats), the military government invalidated the results and retained control of the country.

Yet Nyunt remained unbowed in his personal fight for what he believed to be just. After successful legal action on behalf of citizens whose lands had been seized (outright or with minimal compensation) by the government, Nyunt challenged a powerful major who also had benefited from an illegal seizure of private land.

Shortly thereafter Nyunt was summoned to appear before a board of military leaders who warned him that he would be imprisoned if he didn't rescind his threat of legal action.

"I said that we had laws and regulations and what they were doing was unfair," Nyunt said. "They punched the table and threatened me, but I just said, ‘It's OK. I'm waiting.'"

He didn't have to wait long. Late that same night a group of men pulled up to Nyunt's home and arrested him.

Before they took him to the police station for official processing, the men stuffed Nyunt into a reeking underground trash hole and left him there without food for four days.

A perfunctory trial was eventually held, and Nyunt was sentenced to seven years for his anti-government actions.

Still, he could have avoided jail if he were willing to help the government build a case against the popular Suu Kyi. According to Nyunt, a government official told him that if he signed an affidavit linking Suu Kyi to a cache of arms supposedly confiscated by the government, he would be free to go home.

"It was made-up history," he said. "They wanted me to lie and I wouldn't do it. I would never do it."

Instead, Nyunt spent the first three months of his sentence in solitary confinement.

"There was no light, no restroom, no shower," he recalled. "I slept on bricks. Sometimes I could hear other prisoners being beaten with sticks. After one month I had psychosis."

Life in the general prison population was scarcely better. Nyunt said he and his fellow prisoners were forced to live in their own filth and had to bat the vermin from their food if they wanted to eat.

Nyunt was released in 1999 and was able to make it to Guam on a visa waiver. There he spent nine months waiting for his application for political asylum to be approved.

From Guam, Nyunt moved to Indiana, then New York, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, Los Angeles and eventually Hawaii.

"When I was young, I wanted to go to so many different places," he said. "I kept looking for a better job, and along the way I got to see a lot of the country."

Nyunt's former wife and two sons chose to remain in Myanmar. And while he said he would like to return one day for a visit, Nyunt — who became an official U.S. citizen last February — says his home is in Hawaii.

"Becoming a U.S. citizen was the proudest moment of my life," he said. "I am happy to be in a country that observes human rights, and I want to stay here for the rest of my life. Here I can speak freely and tell people, ‘This is my life.'"

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