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Home > News > Report

Engagement with Myanmar to go on: Fernandes

Basharat Peer in New Delhi | March 05, 2003 08:50 IST

Defence Minister George Fernandes is known to keep an open house, despite it having brought infamy upon him in the recent past.

Among those who have benefited from his generosity are some Burmese pro-democracy activists, who he refuses to throw out despite they being an embarrassment to the Indian government, which is trying to maintain cordial relations with the junta in Myanmar.

However, on Tuesday, he killed two birds with the one stone when he said that India would continue its engagement with the government in Myanmar as it needs the latter's help in fighting insurgents in Northeast.

"These insurgents, who operate from Burmese soil, target our soldiers. We are duty-bound to talk to Myanmar's government to protect our borders," he said.

Interestingly, he expressed these views at a function in Delhi to release Burma File -- A Question of Democracy, a book by Soe Myint, a pro-democracy Burmese journalist.

Myint is the editor of Mizzima News, an online news service established by him, his wife and other pro-democracy Burmese journalists living in exile in India.

Referring to the question of democracy in Myanmar and the problems of Burmese refugees in India, Fernandes said, "While government are bound by certain constraints which come along with the powers invested in them, people are not bound by such restrictions."

"Some Burmese refugees once came to my house saying they were being thrown out of India. I asked them to move into my house," he told the audience.

The defence minister has vacated a few rooms in his house to provide shelter to the refugees. "Whenever and wherever anyone has a similar problem, my doors are open to them."

Myint was one of the refugees who found shelter in Fernandes' place.

Having left his country after the military took over the government in 1988, Myint, then a student at the Rangoon University, moved to Thailand and joined the Burmese students' struggle against the junta.

In the 1990s, when the world's attention was focused on the Gulf war, he and another student, Htin Kyaw, hijacked a Thai Airways plane from Bangkok to Rangoon and diverted it to Kolkata.

The hijackers, then in their early twenties, were unarmed but claimed to possess a 'bomb' -- a soap case with a wire attached to it.

At the Kolkata airport, their only demand was to hold a press conference to focus world attention to their country's plight.

Myint went on to establish himself as a journalist.

But with the recent warmth in Indo-Burmese relations, the ghosts of the hijacking incident have come back to haunt him.

He will face trial in April and can be sentenced to 10 years in prison. "I was shocked to find out that India will try me," Myint said.

Fernandes, on his part said, "I have consistently strived to save Myint. My efforts will continue till he is free of the problem."

On his book, the minister said, "It is a must reading for all who share the concern for democratic values and human rights."

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