MYANMAR: Exiles cautious on return offer

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MONDAY, 12 SEPTEMBER 2011

BANGKOK, (IRIN) – Human rights activists and exiles have expressed caution over an invitation by Burmese President Thein Shein to return home.

“If they really want the people of the country to come back to Burma, they should release all the political prisoners,” Kyaw Zwa Moe, managing editor of Thailand-based The Irrawaddy news magazine, told IRIN. “Everybody wants to go back home. But there is no guarantee for our safety when we go back.”

Kyaw Zwa Moe spent eight years in prison for his activities during and after the nationwide uprising on 8 August 1988, also known as 8888, which led to a bloody crackdown from the government, sending thousands into exile.

Few believe real freedom is on the table, despite talk of a policy confirming the informal August announcement made to businessmen in Napyidaw, the nation’s capital.

“How can he [the president]welcome some of the family members to return home while some of our family members are in prisons?” asked Aung Myo Min, director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB) based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Aung Myo Min left the country 23 years ago after his involvement in 8888. “We have a strong desire to work for the sake of our people and good changes for our country. But we want to go back in dignity, not like a criminal,” Aung Myo Min added.

While the president said the government would consider “leniency” for those who had not committed crimes, such qualifications are rejected by the exiles.

“We can’t consider going back home just because President Thein Sein said his government will consider leniency for us,” said Nyi Nyi Aung, a naturalized US citizen, who escaped Myanmar after 8888 and returned in 2009 only to be arrested and imprisoned. He was released after six months in prison and is now back in the US.

“I will return after all political prisoners are released, and peace talks with all ethnic groups reach national reconciliation and there is a path to democratization in Burma [Myanmar],” he said.

After safety, exiles also wonder if they will have the freedom to live as they have since escaping their country.

“My concern is whether I’ll be able to write freely or not while inside the country,” said Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Tight controls

Myanmar remains one of the most tightly restricted countries in the world in terms of press freedom, although the 2008 constitution provides for freedom of speech.

According to a 2011 press freedom survey by Freedom House, a Washington-based advocacy group, it is rated one of the worst 10 countries in terms of press freedom.

“As a journalist, I won’t stay silent without criticizing the government,” Kyaw Zwa Moe said. “As long as there is no freedom of press inside, we won’t be able to write critical issues that we’re doing now from here [Thailand].”

Meanwhile, the government’s announcement in May that the sentences of all prisoners, including those charged with political crimes, would be reduced by one year, was another meaningless gesture made under the auspices of a new democratic Myanmar, he added, especially for those prisoners only a few years into their decade-long terms.

Human Rights Watch called the reduction a “slap in the face” for the UN.

Myanmar’s exiles have received similar offers in the past. In 1980, General U Ne Win granted Myanmar’s first amnesty to U Nu, the first democratically elected prime minister of Myanmar after independence from Britain. After the 8888 uprising, the regime invited those who went underground to return, only to put them under watch. Many were arrested once they made political statements.

“We’re a long way off from any real amnesty here,” said Win Min, a former 8888 student activist and Burmese academic now living in the US, told IRIN. “We’re not even close.”

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