RANGOON — Human rights and political activists in Burma have accused the government of failing to make good on its promise to welcome the return of Burmese exiles, saying “the government’s words and actions are contradictory.”
At a press conference on Thursday in Rangoon, three Burmese activists formerly or currently in exile urged the government to articulate and enact clear policies on matters related to their repatriation, including the application processes for visas and permanent residency, and the reinstatement of citizenship.
The activists also warned that a lack of clear policies would go against President Thein Sein’s stated objective of national reconciliation in a democratizing Burma.
Their press conference comes more than three years after Thein Sein’s announcement that the Southeast Asian country would welcome the return of exiles that fled Burma throughout decades of brutal military dictatorship. Since 2011, the government has made overtures to the Burmese exile community, with Thein Sein in September 2012 telling the UN General Assembly that “the coming back with dignity of the exiled political forces” was evidence of the country’s progress toward democracy. Ahead of his visit to Washington in May 2013, he further pledged to ease resettlement for formerly blacklisted individuals.
“He cited our return as [a sign of] progress in the country. But what he failed to mention is we are facing hurdles [in obtaining visas, applying permanent residency and reinstating citizenship],” said Aung Myo Min at the press conference. The director of the NGO Equality Myanmar has been waiting for more than eight months to have his citizenship reinstated.
“Some have already got the citizenship. When I asked the relevant authorities why my application is taking so long, no one knows. It seems they are considering case by case,” he added.
The government announced earlier this year that it would introduce a system of permanent residency for foreign nationals in December, but Aung Myo Min pointed out Thursday that the policy’s bylaws exclude anyone who has sought political asylum in other countries from eligibility.
“The problem is most of the exiled activists have the asylum status. So the PR seems to have nothing to do with them. It’s unclear whether they are intentionally excluded,” he said.
Following Aung Myo Min’s remarks, fellow activist Bo Kyi, who was slated to speak at Thursday’s press conference in Rangoon, was forced to instead call in from neighboring Thailand, where he has been waiting two weeks for his entry visa to Burma.
“In the past, it took a day or a few days to get it. When I contacted the President’s Office, I didn’t get a proper reply,” Bo Kyi told media via telephone from Thailand, where his Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) is based.
Khin Ohnmar, the founder and director of a human rights network called Burma Partnership, said she typically would receive a Burmese visa within a day over the last two years.
“But this time I was told that the embassy was seeking permission from Naypyidaw as the policy was changed and I had to wait for two weeks,” said the activist, who is now in Burma on 28-day “social visit” visa.
She said it was likely that the delay was a repercussion for what she did in Burma during her previous trips, when she faced trouble from authorities.
“I was followed while doing my work, and restrictions were imposed on me like ‘don’t say this’ or ‘don’t say that,’” she recounted.
“I don’t like that kind of situation. We have different views from the government, but they shouldn’t do something like giving visas or citizenship to those who only support [them], not to those who have different views,” she said.
Maung Maung Than, the director general of Burma’s Department of Immigration and National Registration, told The Irrawaddy that Burma didn’t need a more clear policy on resettlement because laws and regulations on the matter were already in place.
“There will be no delay if your application is complete,” he said. “They are just blaming the government for their own shortcomings. If they are not pleased with what we are doing, they can lodge complaints.”
“For any delays in visa issuances or denials, it’s up to the relevant embassies,” he added.
Khin Ohmar said she had no idea what would happen when she next applies for a visa in January.
“If my visa is rejected, I will think they no longer welcome me because I have different views, and take it as their clear policy.
“But I hope it won’t happen,” she added.
The Irrawaddy reporter San Yamin Aung contributed to the reporting.