Activists Claim Travel Restrictions Remain

By Lawi Weng 24 August 2012

Rights activists say they continue to be refused permission to travel abroad despite the Burmese government claiming to being undergoing political reform.

While some prominent opposition figures such as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi have been granted documents for travel abroad, many former political prisoners claim that their right to visit foreign countries remains restricted.

Twenty prominent members of the 88 Generation Students group in Rangoon have not been issued passports despite submitting applications six months ago. People usually only wait one month to be issued with the document.

“We want to know what their clear policy is—who they can give passports to and who they cannot give them to. We have found that they do not have one policy for everyone,” said Soe Tun, of the 88 Generation.

During the previous military junta in Burma, a blacklist of people who opposed the regime was drawn up and movement restricted. But the 88 Generation Students said that President Thein Sein’s new government must move away from such tyrannical practices if it is serious about reform.

Min Ko Naing, a well known rights activist and 88 Generation leader, plans to visit the United States to collect an award from the National Endowment for Democracy—his first trip outside Burma after 18 years as a political prisoner. But his travel plans cannot yet be confirmed as his passport application is still pending.

Aung Thein, a prominent lawyer and former political prisoner, said that his passport was seized by Burmese Immigration at Rangoon Airport on July 27 on his return from Thailand. The National League for Democracy member had to cancel a follow-up medical appointment in Thailand on Aug. 17 as his passport was still being held by the authorities.

“They did not give me any reason why they seized my passport,” he said. “But I noticed that when they finally returned it that they stamped ‘observation’ in the book which means they can take it back at any time.

“It is nonsense to do this. I told them when they seized my passport that it is not fair to take it because I am a sick person and need to have further medical checkups,” he added.

Aung Thein said that the incident might be related to his talk at a workshop in Thailand and another seminar he attended in Hong Kong which discussed human rights.

“We have to think a lot when the government says it is changing,” he said. “It should not change only at the top, there must also be change from the middle and the bottom as well.”

He said that there was an obvious contradiction in his treatment as the government is currently inviting Burmese people living in exile to return to the country. “I do not feel like I did something wrong by attending this workshop and seminar,” he said.

Meanwhile, ethnic Mon politician Min Soe Lin told The Irrawaddy that the government refuses to issue him his new passport. The immigration authorities are awaiting orders from Naypyidaw before handing over the document, he said.

“They should let me know what the problem they have with me is,” said Min Soe Lin. “I have the right to keep my passport as even Khun Htun Oo and Zarganar got it.”

Khun Htun Oo and Zarganar are high-profile former political prisoners in Burma. Ethnic Shan leader Khun Htun Oo has traveled to Thailand twice for medical checkups while Zarganar, a famous dissident comedian, has made various trips to the United States and Europe.

Since Burma began a process of political reform last year, the government has made it much easier for foreigners to visit. However, there are no clear regulations for Burmese nationals to be allowed to travel abroad, claim rights activists.