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Ahmay Ya showed the lists of people in Minnesota who signed to support the search for her father, a Karen activist named Mahn Nyein Maung who has been missing since July.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Karen leader's daughter fights for his freedom

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH
  • Star Tribune
  • October 7, 2011 - 12:01 AM

Though they live on separate continents, Ahmay Ya took comfort in hearing her father's voice during their regular phone chats.

Then one day this summer the phone calls stopped.

Since then, Ya has been working to find and free her father, a prominent Karen activist fighting for a democratic Burma who may have been imprisoned by authorities.

"I fear for his life and I'm really worried about him," said Ya, of St. Paul. "He just disappeared. This is very strange."

Ya is one of an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Karen people living in Minnesota -- the largest Karen population in the country, according to the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Most are members of the Karen National Union, a movement that has been at odds with the military-led government of Myanmar, formerly Burma, for decades. Ya's father, Mahn Nyein Maung, 69, is a senior leader of the KNU.

The armed conflict has led many Karen to flee Myanmar and become refugees living in Thailand and around the globe.

Desperate to save her father, Ya has embarked on a one-woman campaign to alert Karen leaders, political heavyweights and human rights groups worldwide to intervene.

She recently collected signatures from 200 people from Minnesota's Karen community pledging their support for her father. She has lobbied Karen leaders in Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and Australia to let people know about his mysterious disappearance.

She also has contacted the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office, and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken's offices to ask them to pressure Myanmar's government to treat her dad humanely.

'Notorious' prison

Ya has good reason to worry if Maung is in Myanmar, human rights groups say.

"Their record of human rights abuses against dissidents is extensive and brutal," said Michele Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director for the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights.

Among the Karen here and abroad, everyone has heard of Maung.

"We as a Karen people, we worry more than her," said Saw Morrison, program manager of the Karen Organization of Minnesota. "Because he's our policymaker, a leading politician."

For most of his life, he has fought for social justice and freedom for the Karen and other ethnic minorities.

He was captured once years ago and famously escaped from the Coco Islands prison.

A persuasive speaker and effective community organizer, he was well-connected with other ethnic groups in conflict with the military dictatorship, said Robert Zan, one of the original Karen refugees resettled in Minnesota.

Zan, who was a soldier for many years in the armed wing of the KNU and is still known as "the general," said he fears the worst for his old friend if reports of his capture are true.

When he first heard the news of Maung's imprisonment, he said, "I think we never meet again."

From Thailand to China to ... ?

According to a BBC report, Maung traveled from his home in Thailand to China in June to observe the armed conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government troops near the border.

On his return in July, Maung was stopped by Thai immigration officials, who would not allow him to re-enter the country because his visa had expired.

Thai officials sent Maung back to China, reports said, and Chinese officials turned him over to Myanmar's military.

Zan said he learned from later news reports that Maung is being held at a "very notorious prison" in Yangon, the capital formerly called Rangoon.

If he is in prison, "torture is almost a certainty," he said. "His health is not so good. They have no human rights. I feel sorry for my friend."

But without official confirmation, it's tough to know how worried to be, Zan said.

Yet Ya pushes forward, writing letters, making phone calls and scanning websites for news about her father.

With every passing day, she grows more desperate.

"I'm just really worried about him," she said, through tears. "This is all I can do."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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