A day after their names appeared in a government list of Burmese nationals who are no longer regarded as threats to national security, a group of high-profile dissidents returned to their homeland on Friday for the first time in more than two decades.
The group of five high-profile activists—Dr Naing Aung, Dr Thaung Htun, Maung Maung, Aung Moe Zaw and Nyo Ohn Myint—are visiting on 28-day visas, and are expected to spend their time in the country meeting with government ministers, opposition leaders and relatives.
A second group of eight former dissidents led by Moe Thee Zun, a student leader who has lived in exile since fleeing a crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in 1988, is expected to arrive at Rangoon’s international airport on Saturday morning.
The return of both groups was facilitated by government peace negotiators, who have been active since last year in negotiations with a host of ethnic and democratic opposition groups as part of the ongoing reform efforts of President Thein Sein.
“We will continue our discussions from previous informal talks with Naypyidaw’s peace negotiators—former Railways Minister Aung Min and former Industry Minster Soe Thein,” said Dr Thaung Htun, the executive director of the Bangkok-based Institute for Peace and Social Justice in Burma.
A key issue that the returnees hope to discuss is the role of exiled activists in helping to shape nation-building efforts in Burma after decades of conflict. They say they hope to share their skills acquired in exile to help address social and economic challenges facing the country.
Thaung Htun said that the political process in Burma must include all democratic and ethnic forces both inside and outside of the country, as well as the armed forces, so that a lasting peace can prevail in the country.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Moe Thee Zun said he would also seek to ensure that all other exiles are able to return under conditions conducive to the smooth progress of peace efforts.
“We will talk about exiled activists returning home with dignity and without any obstacles when we meet with the government peace negotiators,” he said from Bangkok after arriving from the United States, where he currently resides.
“We had no trouble with our travel arrangements, so it should also be the same with others,” he said.
However, the return of the exiles was not without controversy. In Rangoon, a group of former members of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) held a press conference about the killing of other members of the group in Kachin State 20 years ago, allegedly under the orders of Dr Naing Aung and other former leaders.
That incident, which has attracted growing attention in the past year on social media sites, has long been a source of anger among former members of the student army and their families, who say that no one has yet been held accountable.
Interest in the case has been especially strong since the publication in June of a book by a man who traveled to the ABSDF’s base in northern Kachin State from February to April 1992 to save his brother from execution after he was accused of spying for the government.
The book alleges that two people—Ronald Aung Naing, the then chairman of the ABSDF-Northern Burma, and Dr Naing Aung—were chiefly responsible for the killing of 15 suspected spies on Feb. 12, 1992, as well as the deaths of 20 others who died while under interrogation.
Naing Aung, who was the chairman of the ABSDF-Southern Burma at the time, has denied the allegations and said that he is ready to cooperate with any inquiry into the incident.
“Any organization or people, including the former MI [military intelligence] led by Khin Nyunt, who had responsibility should be included in the truth-finding process,” Naing Aung told The Irrawaddy on Friday. “We will cooperate fully, but it must not be only one-sided participation.”
Family members of one of the victims filed a lawsuit against those responsible at a township court in Rangoon last week.
If the case goes ahead, said Naing Aung, Burma’s courts should also be prepared to hear charges against members of the the former junta accused of committing human rights abuses. The judiciary should not only hear cases chosen by the administration if Burma is to develop genuine rule of law, he added.