Exiled Dissidents Return to Push Reform

By Saw Yan Naing 6 September 2012

Hundreds of Burmese exiles have returned to Burma over the last few day to test the limits of the government’s reform program.

The move comes after Naypyidaw invited dissidents to come home and removed more than 2,000 names from the state’s blacklist.

Many of the returnees are prominent figures from the democracy movement who led exiled opposition organizations such as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), Forum for Democracy in Burma (FDB) or Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS). Some are just individuals who got caught up in the crushed popular uprising of September 1988.

Moe Thee Zon, an exiled activist living in United States who has just returned to Burma, said that he came back to help forge a real democracy in his homeland.

“I only want to see Burma become a democratic nation as soon as possible,” he told The Irrawaddy. “Our people are poor. So we need to make a change. If we don’t make a change now, when are we going to?”

Some of his colleagues—Burmese dissident leaders such as DPNS chief Aung Moe Zaw, Naing Aung of the FDB and Thaung Htun of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)—also returned to Burma on Saturday.

Many inside-based activists welcomed them back and call it a “positive sign.” They hope that the returning dissidents, intellectuals and professionals can participate in helping the country move towards democratization.

Ko Ko Gyi, a leader of Rangoon-based 88 Generation Students group, a leading Burma activist organization, sees the return of exiled dissidents as a constructive development.

“It is a positive change as the exiled dissidents are able to return,” he told The Irrawaddy. “We want to see all of them come back so it will add strength for rebuilding the nation.”

Hkun Htun Oo, chairman of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), said, “The government is trying to reform. And the exiled Burmese have returned to observe the situation. It is time for testing the soil for plants. It is a good practice.”

Some observers, however, warn of brewing conflicts between the exiled dissidents and those who have been based inside throughout the tumultuous last few decades. Many at home feel threatened by former exiled dissidents as the returnees boast experience and capabilities to contributing to the reform process which were learned abroad.

Win Tin, a leading member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said that he wants to see former exiled and inside-based Burmese dissident forces work together in harmony.

“Both exiled and domestic Burmese dissidents have experienced difficulties during their democracy struggle and internal dissident forces have faced much oppression by the government including harsh imprisonments and torture while struggling for the democracy movement,” he said.

Famous Burmese writer Dagon Taryar made a public appeal that circulated on social media this week that urged Burmese democracy forces to build trust and work together peacefully for the interests of the nation.

As the country starts to move toward democracy, he asked all concerned parties and political players to avoid unnecessary conflict and help the emerging reform progress move smoothly until 2015 when the next general election is due to be held.

Some domestic dissident groups also want to learn more about returning exiles who are accused of crimes during their struggle against the former junta.

Maung Wun Tha, a Rangoon-based veteran journalist, said that many people want to know what happened in Kachin State with regards alleged killings conducted by the ABSDF’s northern leadership.

“They are interested to know if the dissidents really committed this crime and who is responsible,” he said.

There are allegations 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.

Hla Maung Shwe, a vice-chairman of Rangoon-based civil society organization Myanmar Egress, said that there is an information gap between Burmese exiles and domestic dissidents. “The returning exiles lack information, local narration and trust-building,” he said.

“If they are in touch with the situation on the ground, their input will be strength that can drive the democratic reform faster.”

He added that domestic forces also lack capacity and there is a need for personal trust-building between both sides, especially as ethnic armed groups find it extremely difficult to believe the government after decades of civil war.

“However, they are now beginning to build trust with the government after they meet for talks on the table,” said Hla Maung Shwe, who is also a peace broker between ethnic rebels and Naypyidaw.

“As the old system was wrong, student activists fled Burma and took up arms to resist the government,” he added. “However, the system is now changing. There is a need to cooperate to help change the system.”

Yet Burma does not only need dissidents to return, but also exiled experts, academics, technicians, doctors, engineers and professionals, said Hla Maung Shwe.

The Irrawaddy reporter Linn Thant also contributed into this article.