Elaine Pearson

In June, Gaithersburg resident Kyaw Zaw Lwin traveled from Thailand to New York to deliver a petition to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special adviser on Burma. The petition, with 680,000 signatures, called on the secretary-general to exert pressure for the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners.

Now, in a tragic twist - and as the Obama administration moves forward with a new policy of increased engagement with Burma - Mr. Zaw Lwin, a U.S. citizen who often goes by the name Nyi Nyi Aung, has disappeared into a Burmese jail cell himself. (Although the ruling junta changed the country's name in English from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, I and most supporters of freedom and human rights there prefer the original name.)

On Sept. 3, Mr. Zaw Lwin flew to Rangoon, where Burmese authorities arrested him on arrival. Returning to Burma, which he left in 1988, may seem a little crazy. Mr. Zaw Lwin works for the Free Burmese Political Prisoners Now campaign in Thailand; his mother and two cousins are serving lengthy prison terms in Burma for participating in the peaceful demonstrations in 2007.

"His mother, his cousins and so many friends in prison was a nightmare for Nyi Nyi," Wa Wa, his fiancée, who remains in Maryland, told me. "His mother got very sick. He felt badly about it; he worked passionately for their freedom."

Now Mr. Zaw Lwin, 40, shares their fate. Over the last two years, the number of political prisoners in Burma has doubled. They include people from all walks of life. While the democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a worldwide symbol of the struggle against repression, at least 2,100 other political prisoners quietly and invisibly languish in Burma's squalid jails.

Ruled by a shadowy group of generals since 1962, Burma remains one of the world's most repressive states, without a free press, with tight restrictions on freedom of assembly, expression and association, and a refugee crisis sparked by military abuses against ethnic minorities.

The U.N. and the international community have long been concerned about Burma's intransigence. Unfortunately, U.N. action has been ineffectual. For years, Burma's generals have run rings around senior U.N. officials, stonewalling efforts by the U.N. to discuss political and human rights issues, and managing to broker endless rounds of meaningless dialogue in the place of tangible results.

At a June 18 news conference in New York, Mr. Zaw Lwin said, "Mr. Ban Ki-moon, my message is simple: Your words show you take this issue seriously. But now I want to see what action you will take to secure the release of my family and all Burma's political prisoners."

On Sept. 16, in a bizarre public relations stunt perhaps meant to appease the U.N. secretary-general ahead of September's General Assembly, Burma's military leaders announced an amnesty of some 7,113 convicted criminals - but just over 100 were political prisoners. As the journalist Eine Khine Oo told the media on her release: "I was nearly due to be released anyway. ... I was doing my reporting job. I don't think I was wrong." Meanwhile, fresh arrests of monks, political activists and human rights defenders like Mr. Zaw Lwin keep happening.

Although Mr. Zaw Lwin has yet to be charged (his trial was due to start Thursday but has been postponed), the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper claims he confessed to terrorist acts. (This is the propaganda mouthpiece of the government that claims it has no political prisoners.) A U.S. consular officer who visited Mr. Zaw Lwin in prison told his family that he described physical torture, including beatings and food and sleep deprivation.

On Sept. 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "to achieve democratic reform, we will be engaging directly with the Burmese authorities." High-level diplomacy by the U.S. is welcome, as long as the U.S. stands by its principles to uphold the basic rights of the Burmese people. The same applies to the U.S. government's dealings with Burma's friends and protectors.

To secure the release of Kyaw Zaw Lwin - and fellow political prisoners he risked everything to free - the U.N. and the U.S. must be prepared to exert pressure on countries like China, Russia, India and ASEAN member states. Trying to overcome the Burmese government's self-imposed isolation is a laudable goal, but engagement should mean no reluctance to exert pressure on the senior leadership.

Sanctions alone may not work, but silence and sweet-talking this regime does not work either.

Elaine Pearson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.