Shortly after assuming office, President Thein Sein made one of his most symbolic promises to date: On Aug. 17, 2011, he announced that the country would welcome the return of exiles that fled Burma throughout decades of brutal military dictatorship.
The announcement was greeted with skepticism; at the time, there were still more than 2,000 prisoners of conscience in Burma, and the government’s commitment to reform was anything but certain. More than three years later, many of those exiles are still reluctant to return, while others said that they face excessive and perhaps discriminatory bureaucratic hurdles.
No one knows exactly how many people have fled Burma since 1988, when a crackdown on a popular uprising caused a sudden spike in departures. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, there are an estimated 1 million refugees and other persons of concern from Burma who either fled conflict or sought political asylum in other countries. After 1988, Burma’s notorious military intelligence agency created an epic blacklist, and some activists were handed sentences as stern as death for their anti-junta agitating.
Many of Burma’s pro-democracy activists sought refuge in other countries. Dissidents who registered with UNHCR would receive travel documents and temporary residency status. After a few years, many of them were granted citizenship and issued passports from their host countries.
Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not allow dual citizenship, which poses problems for those exiles wishing to take Thein Sein at his word. Those holding foreign passports need a visa to return to Burma, which requires approval from three separate government ministries: Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Immigration. Those who wish to reinstate their citizenship face other difficulties, which some explained quite simply: The Burmese government has not yet established an indiscriminate protocol for dealing with their return.
“There’s no policy set for this issue,” explained Aung Myo Min, the director of an NGO called Equality Myanmar. Aung Myo Min left Burma for Thailand in 1990, where he has since become a renowned activist who has dedicated years to promoting human rights awareness and gender equality via a network of activists across the country. He said that while he hasn’t had much difficulty returning, several of his peers have been less lucky.
One of them is Khin Ohmar, the founder and director of a human rights network called Burma Partnership. Khin Ohmar left Burma after the 1988 crackdown. She was resettled in the United States and was later granted citizenship. After Thein Sein invited exiles to return, she did what many others did: She applied for a social visit visa, which grants a longer stay than most other permits. The social visit visa was primarily created to allow foreign passport holders to spend time with family members in Burma. Many exiles have traveled between their host country and Burma on such permits several times in recent years. According to Khin Ohmar, it’s never a problem… until it’s a problem.
She recently told The Irrawaddy that the Burmese Embassy has delayed processing her most recent application pending “approval from Naypyidaw.”
The reason this is so concerning, several prominent exiles said, is that it seems to be happening more and more often. In November, Mun Awng, a revered singer and a Norwegian passport holder, was also denied a visa by the embassy in Bangkok, which offered a similar explanation.
“I submitted [Mun Awng’s visa application] to Naypyidaw,” said Burma’s Ambassador to Thailand Win Maung, speaking to The Irrawaddy by phone on Monday, “but he [Mun Awng] hasn’t been back or contacted us [since then].”
Win Maung added that applicants should “understand the procedures” when seeking a permit, which some applicants said was unrealistic given the lack of clear protocol and the arbitrary nature of approval. The ambassador also confirmed to The Irrawaddy that the hold-up in Mun Awng’s application was due to his participation in a protest against Thein Sein when he visited Norway in 2013, an admission that supports suspicions that exiles are only welcome under certain conditions.
The list of those denied re-entry is longer than one might expect. Cho Seint, an exiled poet who is also a Norwegian passport holder, was denied a visa earlier this year. Moe Thee Zun, a student leader during the 1988 popular uprising against the military regime, was denied entry in June despite having been allowed to enter Burma twice since the reform process began. He was among the most dubious returnees, after being sentenced to death while in exile because his political activity was found to incite unrest. Former student activist and founder of the independent journal Sun Ray, Moe Hein,was similarly expelled earlier this year with little legal explanation.
“The government should outline specific regulations and procedures for dealing with visa requests submitted by former activists who sought asylum in foreign countries,” said Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). The organization, which keeps a running roster of Burma’s prisoners of conscience and assists both detainees and their families, operated out of Thailand for the past 14 years.
Bo Kyi is now a member of the government-established Political Prisoners Scrutiny Committee, and even he has concerns about renewing his entry permit because the authorities have been found to selectively enforce technicalities of visa rules. Social visit visas, for example, have been used by returning foreign passport holders because there is no other extended-stay option for exiles. If an exile no longer has any living relatives in Burma, however, they are ineligible for that particular permit.
One possible solution for returnees is a system of permanent residency permits, which could be introduced by the end of this year, according to a senior immigration official who spoke to The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity in November. The system would offer renewable five-year residency permits for foreigners and former citizens.
While permanent residency would offer exiles permission to live in their country of origin, it wouldn’t solve one of the most frustrating problems for returnees: political exclusion of some of the country’s most seasoned and educated political activists and intellectuals. The law requires that only citizens who have lived in Burma for 10 consecutive years are eligible for seats in the nation’s Parliament.
Many returnees who do wish to reinstate their citizenship face even further obstacles, Bo Kyi said. He is among the some 100 exiles who have applied for new citizenship documents since the invitation to return was extended in 2011, but he is still waiting on answers.o Kyi said that the lack of a comprehensive policy gives the government leeway to pick and choose who has mobility and power.
“Some ethnic leaders,” he said, “are issued a Burmese passport and can travel to foreign countries, while people like us have applied for citizenship and haven’t had any response.”