Hla Aye Maung’s nightmare began in the central Tokyo district of Nishi Nippori when he went shopping. A police car pulled up beside him and the officers found he was one of the more than 250,000 illegal aliens apparently working in Japan. They took him to a police station in nearby Ueno, from where he got word to his wife. Through the Burmese community network, a lawyer was contacted and thus began his odyssey as an asylum-seeker.
He filed his application while in the Shinagawa detention center, before he was moved to Ushiku Detention Center in Ibaraki Prefecture — usually the last stop before deportation. Virtually every asylum-seeker knows Ushiku, a name that conjures up things we all fear but which is terra incognita for almost all Japanese. Hla Aye, 40, spent 18 months in detention, and is out now on 300,000 yen bail.
Like many asylum-seekers, his case dragged on. The Immig- ration Bureau turned him down and his appeal was denied by the Justice Ministry. He was told that as an Arakanese he did not fit the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees’ criteria for persecution, because the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights report on Myanmar did not list this as an ethnic group targeted by the military junta.
This jackbooted kleptocracy focuses on internal suppression and muffling the supporters of democracy, who still look upon Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 62, as their rightful leader. She has spent much of the past 17 years under house arrest, “guilty” of leading the National League of Democracy that won a landslide victory in 1990 parlia- mentary elections. Meanwhile, Thailand and Bangladesh now host tens of thousands of Burmese refugees whose ever-rising numbers highlights the miseries of tyranny.
Now Hla Aye’s case is in the hands of his lawyer and the court system. He works full-time at a restaurant and tries to lead a normal family life, hoping he will join the tiny number of 410 Convention refugees recognized by Japan since 1982. Nearly one-third of those are Burmese, so he may have a chance — unlike Kurds or Afghanis.
No health insurance
However, his situation is bleak, because in addition to legal bills of 800,000 yen, he has some 2 million yen of medical debts resulting from his baby daughter’s head injury in a fall. Like most asylum-seekers and illegal migrants, he has no health insurance.
Sai Tun Kyar, 39, a chef in a Shan restaurant in Tokyo, is also hopeful despite the odds. An ethnic Shan student activist in the 1990s, who entered Japan in 2002 on a false passport, he was arrested by undercover police staking out the station one night in 2006. He spent eight months in detention and was recently released on 500,000 yen bail. His case has been taken on by Shogo Watanabe, a lawyer famous for his efforts on behalf of refugees, and who is also a leader of an NPO, People’s Forum on Burma.
Before his detention, Sai Tun managed to save enough to cover university fees for his wife, who now works at a small trading company in Japan.
According to Kei Nemoto, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, 2005’s revision of the Immigration Control and Refugee Act reflects the success of Watanabe, other lawyers and NPOs in exposing the short- comings of Japan’s legal framework for refugees. It also makes it easier for asylum- seekers to file applications, and has created a less predictable appeal process that now includes NPO activists on review boards.
Nemoto believes the success of lawyers in arguing their cases in the courts, made easy in the case of Burmese because of the Myanmar government’s notorious practices, has caused the Justice Ministry to lose face. As a result it has taken to recognizing more Burmese as refugees and expanded the numbers given visas on humanitarian grounds.
However, Watanabe complains that the still very strict interpretation of the 1951 Convention by the Justice Ministry ignores the humanitarian spirit that inspired the Convention, and is at odds with the broader definition of refugees that is common practice elsewhere in the world.
The number of asylum-seekers from Myanmar has mushroomed from 38 in 2002 to 626 in 2006, reflecting growing desperation under the military junta since its thugs attacked Aung San Kyi’s motorcade in 2003. According to Nemoto, the prospects for democratization in Myanmar are increasingly remote, as the military junta becomes more entrenched, shrugging of sanctions by playing India and China off against each other in a lucrative diplomacy. In his view, the government and business community in Japan have lost patience with Myanmar’s rulers, but it is not making much of a difference. As a result, Japan is likely to face pleas for asylum by increasing numbers of Burmese.
The question on everyone’s mind is whether it is ready to respond as it did to the last regional refugee crisis involving Indochinese. Many are hopeful, but few are optimistic.