In the years since the Burmese authorities crushed a 1988 student-led uprising, killing perhaps 3,000 in the process, many of the country’s opposition figures have been jailed or worked from abroad – or sometimes both. Some of those jailed were freed, only to be swept up in a junta dragnet after the 2007 Saffron protests, which also saw the jailing of hundreds of monks.
As a result of Burma’s historic persecution of dissidents, hundreds – perhaps thousands – live abroad, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees and several million migrant workers scattered across Southeast Asia. Bangkok, New Delhi, London, Washington DC, Brussels are all bases for Burmese dissidents, with a mini industry-sized network of NGOs, media, refugee support agencies, clinics – not to mention armed opposition groups – all operating along the Thailand-Burma border.
Could all that be about to change? Since taking office in March 2011, President Thein Sein has, it seems, steered his military-backed government on a reform route – reaching a truce with the country’s longest standing ethnic militia, relaxing censorship laws, allowing the formation of trade unions and, with limits, the holding of public demonstrations.
Speaking on January 17 during a visit to Burma, U.S. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said: “I’m convinced he [Thein Sein] is a genuine reformer, and more importantly, so does Aung San Suu Kyi.” His comments came soon after visits to Burma by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, and Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano. McConnell’s assessment is particularly notable, given that to date he has been an outspoken critic of Burma’s rulers, openly questioning the sincerity and validity of the reforms.
Among Thein Sein’s reform initiatives was an August 2011 call for Burma’s exiles to return home. That was met with skepticism by many exiles, who believed they risked arrest and imprisonment should they return, and many remain to be convinced that Thein Sein’s reform drive has yet passed the point of no return. Indeed, Aung San Suu Kyi herself said on January 6 that the military could yet derail the reform process, though she has been working closely, it seems, with Thein Sein, giving his reforms the moral legitimization needed to allow Western governments to in turn give their own seal of approval.
In the intervening months, the Burmese government has released hundreds of political prisoners – something that exiles said needed to happen if they were to take Thein Sein’s “come home” offer seriously. One of these, U Thein Oo – an exiled member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – says that Suu Kyi’s participation in Burma’s government could be a catalyst for return. “If she can get some form of guarantee for Burmese opposition living outside, then I think we can go back,” he says.
Suu Kyi will run in Burma’s April 1 2012 by-elections, amid rumors that if elected she will be offered a ministerial job by Thein Sein. However, not all Burma’s political prisoners or prisoners of conscience have been freed, and the country’s laws are based on a controversial 2008 Constitution that critics say enshrines military rule by proxy, irrespective of elections or other changes.
Zaw Winn took part in the 1988 student protests, and now works for Memo 98, an activist group based along the Thailand-Burma frontier. He says he thinks that a formal amnesty is needed before exiles can go back to their homeland. “There are still many problems with rule of law in Burma,” he says.
Many Burmese exiles have lived abroad for a decade or more, and have acquired non-Burmese citizenship. “The government needs to make a law allowing for dual citizenship, this is very important to many Burmese,” Zaw Winn says.
One opposition figure who returned to Burma during military rule was Nyi Nyi Aung, another 1988 student protestor. He was arrested and jailed for several months in 2009 after returning to Burma to visit – accused by the Burmese authorities of attempting to foment an uprising – and was only released after heavy U.S. pressure. Now in the United States, he told The Diplomat that any exile return should involve an “official announcement by law that exile democratic forces can come back to work freely for democratization, to participate in the process of transnational justice.”
But Burma’s overseas media groups are eyeing a shot at their home market, and may be among the first exiles to return home. For many years, organizations such as Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), The Irrawaddy and Mizzima have offered exile operated, Burma-focused news, filling a gap created by Burma’s draconian censorship laws and restrictions. Exile media has faced restrictions of its own, not being permitted to operate in Burma and with correspondents inside Burma who have had to work undercover for fear of arrest. Exile groups also face funding cuts, as European donors shift money inside Burma, a situation not helped by a recent corruption scandal at DVB, whose footage of the 2007 Saffron protests won the organization global plaudits.
Still, 13 DVB reporters were among the hundreds of political prisoners freed in last week’s high-profile amnesty, and one, Sithu Zeya, a video journalist who was given an 8-year sentence after attempting to photograph the site of explosions in Rangoon during the 2010 Buddhist water festival, spoke with me by telephone just after his release. “I’m very pleased to be free and that my father is also free,” he said. Sithu’s father, U Zeya, was also freed after being jailed for 13 years for working clandestinely with his son for DVB.
Such oppressive laws are about to change, believes Sein Win, managing editor of Mizzima. “I visited Burma last week,” he told The Diplomat, speaking by telephone from Chiang Mai. “It was the first official visit by Mizzima to Burma since we founded in 1998.”
Sein Win confirmed that he discussed the possibility of opening a Mizzima office in Burma with the country’s Ministry of Information. “We’ll wait for the publication of the new press law, maybe in February or March,” he said. “I’m hopeful they will abandon the censorship board.”
“I think all the Burmese exile media are now trying to work in Rangoon and inside the country.”