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Myanmar asylum seekers find haven in Palau

Eleven asylum seekers from military-run Myanmar they say they're astounded by the generosity of Palau and its people.
Palau Myanmar Asylum
Roman Catholic priest Rusk Saburo, center, speaks as Myanmar Buddhist monks Agga Na Na, left, and Pyinna Nanda listen during a meeting June 14 Koror, Palau. A group of 11 asylum seekers fled their homes in Myanmar to Malaysia to the Philippines and finally found peace in Palau, a tiny Pacific nation that has mobilized to protect them. Itsuo Inouye / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The newcomers on this tiny Pacific nation are young and in limbo, scared that they'll be arrested if they're sent back to their native land. Most speak no English, but they say they're astounded by the generosity of Palau and its people.

They are not the Chinese Muslims from Guantanamo who made world news last week when Palau's president said the country would take them. Instead, they are 11 asylum seekers from Myanmar — and they may offer the best idea what the freed detainees' new lives might be.

"They didn't know us," Aye Aye Thant, 34, the group's sole fluent English speaker and de facto spokeswoman, said Sunday. "We are not workers, and we don't serve their country. But we are treated as their own siblings."

Fearing arrest for their political activities, the 10 men and one woman fled military-run Myanmar to Malaysia and then to the Philippines, always moving on because they thought the countries might deport them. They had never heard of Palau, but friends suggested it. It also offered an attractive feature — visa-free entry.

They arrived in late February, and Palau has mobilized to protect them.

Once their money ran out, the local Roman Catholic church offered to house and feed them. On Monday, a senator — the president's younger brother — will take over, letting them stay at his farmhouse as they await word on their application for asylum.

"It's our age-old tradition to receive those in need whenever they somehow arrive on our shores," President Johnson Toribiong said in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday. He said that idea is behind the decision to accept the Chinese Muslims, known as Uighurs, and rejected criticism that the move is somehow tied to U.S. aid.

The Myanmar asylum seekers say in tropical Palau, one of the world's smallest countries, they finally feel free.

"We were going to be arrested by the military government (in Myanmar)," said Aye Aye Thant, a former English teacher who openly opposes Myanmar's ruling junta.

She decided to leave after a family friend and police officer warned her father that she appeared on a government arrest list. She had made unauthorized trips to the Irrawaddy Delta region, hit hard by last year's Cyclone Nargis, to pass out donated supplies and money.

Her cousin Agganana, another asylum seeker who goes by one name, said he led various anti-government demonstrations at home.

All but one in the group, which includes two Buddhist monks, are members of the overseas offshoot of the National League for Democracy led by pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi currently is on trial on charges of violating terms of her house arrest by harboring an American who swam uninvited to her lakeside home.

In Palau, a tropical island nation of 20,000 people, local residents approach them from time to time, offering what they can to help.

Their main benefactor from the Catholic church, Father Rusk Saburo, stopped by Sunday afternoon to check on them before their move.

Saburo, one of Palau's three Roman Catholic priests, said the church has been paying $500 a month for the apartment. It also has provided groceries and medical care.

"The goal of life for us is you help a stranger," he said, sitting between the two Buddhist monks. "No questions asked."

At their new home starting Monday, the men will help out on the senator's farm in return for housing. And Aye Aye Thant said she may be able to start teaching English informally.

Even though the group seems happy with their transition to Palau, Saburo admits he has concerns about the Uighurs' (pronounced WEE'-gurs) expected arrival. How will they fit in after a life spent largely in dry western China? Where will they live? What will they do?

Saburo said he must practice what he preaches, regardless of religion.

"Whether the president has other motives or not is another matter," he said. "For humanitarian purposes, I am a Christian, so I accept anybody who comes in peace. I'm sure a good number of my parishioners feel the same way."