Influential figure on Myanmar affairs and executive director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office (EBO) Harn Yawnghwe was denied a visa this month, allegedly due to his involvement in the country’s peace process. Irrawaddy senior reporter Saw Yan Naing spoke to Harn Yawnghwe about allegedly becoming a recent addition to the government’s blacklist.
What is your comment on the government refusing to issue a visa to work in Myanmar?
The Myanmar Embassy in Ottawa said they did not know the reason why Naypyitaw did not authorize them to issue me a visa. If they do not know, I do not know either. Perhaps the government no longer sees the value of my work. But the embassy has said that it is not a visa ban and they are waiting to hear from Naypyitaw. I hope they hear soon. We started our visa process by contacting the Myanmar Embassy on April 2 and formally submitted an application on April 24. It has now been two months. I do not think visas normally take two months to process. Last year, I also applied for a visa through the Myanmar Embassy in Ottawa and was given a visa that was valid for a year.
It is rather strange for a government that claims to be democratically elected to be denying visas to anyone. As you know, I left Myanmar in 1963 after Gen Ne Win seized power from U Nu’s democratic government. For thirty years, I worked with Dr. Sein Win’s National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the Democratic Voice of Burma to free political prisoners and restore democracy in Myanmar.
In 2011, President Thein Sein allowed me to return after 48 years in exile to help the democratic transition by facilitating the peace process. We managed to get Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015 and commit to resolving 70 years of civil war through political dialogue. He also committed to the establishment of a federal democratic union. This was a great achievement because in 1962, Gen Ne Win seized power by claiming federalism would lead to the disintegration of the country. After the new government came to power, we continued to facilitate the participation of ethnic armed groups, political parties and civil society in the 21st Century Panglong peace conferences.
Do you think the move is politically motivated?
I find it hard to believe that it is politically motivated because that would mean that the government does not want democracy or peace. Surely peace and reconciliation are what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been working for.
Who do you think is behind the move?
I have no idea. The embassy [in Ottawa] reports to Myanmar’s foreign ministry. Logically thinking, the instruction to the embassy not to issue me a visa must come from the foreign ministry. The Ministry of Defense does not have authority over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Some say you are undermining the current peace process led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?
The current government has told foreign diplomats that I urged ethnic armed organizations that signed the NCA in 2015 to boycott the 21st Century Panglong peace conference that was held last year. I did not do so, and the signatories all attended.
The government has also told diplomats that I urged ethnic armed organizations that have not yet signed the NCA, to not sign. This is not true either. We want all groups to participate in the political dialogue that will determine the future of the country.
At the last 21st Century Panglong peace conference in May, the government asked ethnic armed group leaders whether I had influenced them to not sign the Accord that the government had wanted them to sign. This is incorrect thinking. The armed group leaders make their own decisions. They control thousands of battle-hardened soldiers and cannot be easily influenced if it does not suit their purpose. They did not want to sign the non-secession clause because they thought it was unnecessary since that had already committed to the Three National Causes that call for the non-disintegration of the nation.
I have asked to meet the persons in the government who are responsible for the peace process. To date, the answer has either been negative or silence. I do not know why they do not want to meet me to allow me to clarify any possible misunderstanding.
U Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population, said the ministry would explain the reason behind a visa ban if an applicant seeks explanation. Will you seek an explanation?
I believe U Myint Kyaing was speaking in general terms. I do not think he was specifically referring to my case. I am currently seeking an answer from the embassy. They have said that it is not a ban on my entry, but that they are just waiting for an answer from Naypyitaw. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also said anybody can apply for a visa through normal channels. If no answer is forthcoming from the embassy, I will take further steps including contacting the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Population to find out if there is a visa ban against me, and why. In a democracy, there has to be transparency and everybody should have the right to know why the government will not issue them a visa.
We heard that two other EBO staff members were also blacklisted. Do you think your organization has been targeted?
EBO is both an international and a local organization. Our local staff has had no difficulty working with local partners and local authorities—both under the U Thein Sein administration and the current government. One other international staff was denied a visa. But it may have been because we applied for a visa together. No other EBO staff has been denied a visa.