Over 10 years have passed since Myanmar democracy activist Than Htay fled to Japan from his military-ruled motherland on May 26, 1990, the day before a general election whose results were nullified by the junta.
His life in Japan, however, has been a bitter experience because Japanese authorities refused to recognize him as a political refugee.
His anger at the Japanese government has been exacerbated since the United States granted him asylum status after his application last September, thus allowing him to become actively engaged in political activities in that country without fear of deportation.
“My wife and I have been deeply hurt in Japan during the last 10 years,” said Than Htay, who served as vice president of a democracy advocacy group, the Burmese Association in Japan, for three years.
Than Htay first applied for asylum here in winter 1992, with the help of a lawyer he met during a Japanese conference on democracy in Myanmar. He recalled several interviews with immigration officers during which he was treated like a criminal suspect.
“They sometimes yelled at me, accusing me of over-staying my visa,” he recalled.
One of his most telling memories of the interviews are of the immigration officers serving tea only for themselves during the all-day interviews, which only had a short lunch break.
Nearly two years after he applied for refugee status, his application was denied because it had not been filed within 60 days of his entry, as stipulated by law.
He immediately appealed the decision to the Justice Ministry.
Because Than Htay and his wife were placed under provisional release from deportation procedures, for years they had to travel every month to the immigration office in Tokyo’s Kita Ward from their residence in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
In March 1999, after waiting for more than six years under unstable conditions and fear of deportation, Than Htay received his final denial for a refugee visa.
Then later that month, as if by way of consolation, the justice minister granted him special residency permission, which is usually given only to a foreigner married to a Japanese or to a permanent resident here.
“I can work as long as I have the special residence permission,” Than Htay said. “But my pride (as a leading democracy activist) was hurt.”
His experience with U.S. immigration authorities provided a striking contrast to his experience in Japan.
He was treated “as a human with respect” in the U.S., where he sought asylum during a visit to attend a seminar last September.
An immigration officer who introduced himself as “Thomas” knew a lot about Myanmar, he said. “And my cup was filled with tea and his cup was filled, too.”
When he spoke about his 17th birthday, which he spent in a concrete prison cell in Myanmar because of his political activities, the American immigration officer listened with tearful eyes, he said.
At the end of the 90-minute interview, Thomas saw him off by shaking his hand, Than Htay recalled, noting that it took only about three months for the U.S. government to officially grant him asylum.
Nevertheless, Than Htay said, he and his wife now feel too tired to think of starting a new life in another country, where he would have to deal with a new language, different customs and hunt for a job.
“My wife said she neither wants to stay in Japan nor go to America,” he said in fluent Japanese.
He said he felt especially stressful when high-ranking officials of Myanmar’s junta were invited to Japan by the same government that treated him as an offender.
“I believe that Burma will be democratized in the coming few years,” Than Htay said. “Considering the future relationship between Japan and Burma, the Japanese government should support us instead of hurting us.”
Japan, which he describes as a major financial supporter of the military junta, can play a more active role in the effort to bring democracy to Myanmar, he said.
Tokyo-based lawyer Shogo Watanabe, who has supported many asylum-seekers, said Than Htay’s case proved the government has been failing to fulfill its obligation to appropriately protect refugees. “It is against the international convention on refugees,” he said.
Like Than Htay, there have been a number of cases in which asylum-seekers in Japan failed to meet the “60-day rule” of application or never dared to even apply for refugee status.
While some claimed a lack of knowledge about the application process, others said they were so afraid of being denied asylum and sent back home that they could not turn to the authorities.
“I really like the people of Japan,” Than Htay said. “But I think the way the Japanese government and the Justice Ministry treat us is wrong.”