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Singing and dancing woman fights 10

Subject: Singing and dancing woman fights 10-year term in Burmese jail

Singing and dancing woman fights 10-year term in Burmese jail
Date: 10/05/99

By CRAIG SKEHAN in Bangkok

Jean Mellican impressed friends in Australia by getting up from the audience
at Perth nightclubs and singing hit songs from the 1960s and '70s.

The 53-year-old also loved ballroom dancing.

Coming from an Anglo-Burmese family made it easier to fit in as a migrant
when she moved to Australia five years ago.

However, a return visit to her homeland last year cut short her hopes of
continuing to build a new life.

At the end of August, on her way back to Australia, Jean Mellican was
arrested at the international airport outside of Burma's capital, Rangoon.

She had failed to declare $US3,600 ($5,373) of gemstones and could not
produce a receipt.

Friends said she has been shocked by a 10-year jail sentence imposed in
November for what, in many countries, would be a relatively minor offence.

The Australian Government has noted the "severity" of the penalty and appeal
proceedings have begun before Burma's Supreme court.

Mellican is locked behind the walls of Insein Prison, which has a reputation
for being one of the harshest in Asia.

Fortnightly visits by Australian Embassy staff and family members still
living in Burma, including a son who is a Burmese soldier and a married
daughter resident in Rangoon, help to ease the physical and emotional strain.

But supporters are deeply concerned. "Her health is not good," a family
member in Australia said yesterday. "I don't think she would survive a long
prison term."

Mellican and her former partner, Mr Patrick Foley, were allowed into
Australia under a special humanitarian program, courtesy of their status as
members of Burma's Eurasian Catholic minority.

Life became progressively less comfortable for Eurasians, mainly
Anglo-Burmese, following independence from Britain in 1948. There was local
resentment against mainly Christian Anglo-Burmese who used English as a
first language and adopted Western lifestyles. Subsequent political
upheavals fuelled new waves of migrants.

More than 20,000 people who have migrated from Burma or are of Burmese
descent now live in Perth, making it the largest migrant community of its
type in the world. There are sizable Burmese communities in Sydney and

Members of the Mellican clan have been heading south from Burma to settle in
Australia for more than 30 years.

Considerable numbers of the Burmese community in Australia are active
supporters of the pro-democracy movement which opposes Burma's ruling
military regime. But Mellican did not involve herself in politics.

That may be of some help as her appeal unfolds and representations are made
for consideration of humanitarian aspects of the case.

Some members of the Burmese community in Australia are unimpressed when new
arrivals don't involve themselves in their political cause.

Possibly as a result, there has been no campaigning on Mellican's behalf by
Burmese democracy and human rights activists.

"I suppose you'd say Jean came from a lower middle-class family by Burmese
standards," a family friend said yesterday. "She certainly was not well off."

One Burmese woman who knows Mellican says that, having migrated to a land of
opportunity, she had considerable obligations to family members still in
Burma, particularly her son and daughter, who are struggling financially.

Her relationship with Mr Foley broke up a year after they arrived in
Australia and his whereabouts are unknown.

For months the Australian Government made no public mention of Mellican's
case, even though she has Australian citizenship, apparently fearing that
media publicity could make her predicament worse.

However, the fact that the Australian Government has engaged diplomatically
with Burma, rather than following the European Union and United States path
of imposing sanctions, may improve the climate in which Mellican's case is
being heard.

Burma has tough penalties for offences involving the transfer of wealth out
of the country.

The local kyat is a non-convertible currency, so gold and gems - mainly
rubies and emeralds - are favoured for trade and to move funds abroad.

Harsh penalties, even when the amount of gems involved in relatively small,
reflect frustration at the insurmountable difficulties of stemming the
operations of big-time smugglers along the border with Thailand.

An embassy official is scheduled to visit Mellican today and family members
are being allowed to take her food and other necessities.

In the tough environment of Insein Prison, such support can be vital.