HIV-positive Burmese refugee awaits fate
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
A Queen's Medical Center psychiatrist was caught in Thailand last month trying to smuggle an HIV-positive Burmese refugee into Honolulu and is now trying to go through formal U.S. channels.
Through his volunteer work, Dr. Timothy Buroker has found hundreds of ailing people and victims of landmines who are missing limbs from the fighting along the Thailand/Burma border. But there was something even more desperate about the plight of Buroker's 28-year-old interpreter and assistant, a member of the persecuted Shan tribe of Burma.
Sai Tit Yi, or "Tiki," could not survive in the squalor of the refugee camps because of his low T-cell count, Buroker said. Tiki is also vulnerable to retribution from the Burmese military because he has videotaped atrocities along the border, Buroker said.
"We work in the refugee camps, and I know what they're like," Buroker said. "With his condition, he'd be dead. And Tiki has been seen with me by the Burmese spies along the border."
So on July 30, Buroker and Tiki boarded a Northwest Airlines flight that would take them from Bangkok to Japan to Honolulu. Tiki flashed the blue folder of one of Buroker's old passports to get through the airport. But once on board, Northwest flight attendants wanted a closer look.
Thai authorities removed Buroker and Tiki and "a man from the U.S. embassy came," Buroker said. "He was very sympathetic but he thought it was quite likely we would both do jail time in Bangkok."
Thai authorities released Buroker but placed Tiki in an outdoor detention area, where he was sexually assaulted twice during the night, Buroker said.
The next day, Buroker retained a Thai attorney, who got Tiki released on bond. The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees in Bangkok has since classified Tiki as a refugee, eligible for possible entry into the United States.
Embassy, immigration and UN officials in Bangkok said they could not talk about specific cases. In general, they said, the process could take weeks or months. HIV status would not be a factor.
"We get hundreds, if not thousands, of Burmese who are deemed to be refugees," said Indrika Ratwatte, senor regional liaison officer with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees in Bangkok. "In the border camps alone, we have some 110,000 Burmese refugees. Countries with the more progressive and open admission policies allow for individuals with whatever physiological conditions."
Tiki remains in Bangkok, where he is staying with his English computer teacher. As Buroker tries to apply pressure on immigration and embassy officials, Tiki wonders about a life in Hawai'i, where he hopes to live with Buroker, study English and get medical help.
"I cannot stay in Thailand," he said. "I have many, many problems. I am sick is big problem. I need to go to Hawai'i."