State Counselor Meets Burmese Exiles in Japan

By Nyein Nyein 2 November 2016

Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met over one thousand Burmese residents of Japan in the capital Tokyo on Wednesday. Exiled democracy activists present expressed a keen desire to return to Burma but face difficulties obtaining new passports.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also Burma’s foreign minister, began her five-day official visit to Japan on Tuesday—the first trip to the country since the National League for Democracy government assumed power in April. She is expected to secure additional aid and investment for Burma from the world’s third largest economy.

On the same day, she met with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She will later visit Kyoto, where she once lived while researching the life of her father, independence hero Aung San, who was trained by the Japanese to fight the British during World War II.

At the hour-and-a-half gathering on Wednesday, arranged by the Burmese embassy in Tokyo, the State Counselor encouraged Burmese expatriates to work hard to better themselves and contribute to their host country. She took questions on political, social, economic and cultural topics, delivered to her in envelopes by attendants.

Questions touched on poverty in Chin State, rule of law in Burma, the peace process, the state of education, and difficulties in reclaiming Burmese passports for Burmese expatriates in light of demands to pay hefty back-taxes.

Members of the Burmese community in Japan were among the first activists to be driven into exile by the Burmese military junta after it crushed the 1988 pro-democracy movement. Many of are now eager to revisit or move back.

Many exiled activists discarded their passports or allowed them to expire—getting by since with residency documents provided to political asylum seekers in Japan—and refused to pay tax to the junta. However, the Burmese embassy has demanded they pay back-taxes on all the years spent abroad before being issued new passports.

Exiled activists have objected to this as overly harsh, given that they have been paying tax to the Japanese government, which does not have a tax treaty with the Burmese government. The added burden would be more than they could afford, they say.

“Before we boycotted our passports and did not want our tax money to be used by the military dictatorship,” said Ye Nyein, who has been living in Japan for 18 years, and is a member of the Union of Myanmar Citizens Association-Japan.

He said they now wanted to pay their taxes as Burmese citizens, but drew the line at paying the back-taxes. Many others in his community desperately wished to return to their homeland, he said, but were unable to do so without new passports.

“We, who were the pro-democracy activists, are hoping to be able to return to our home country with dignity,” Ye Nyein told The Irrawaddy.

During the meeting in Tokyo, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said that the Burmese government is trying to enable them to come home as quickly as possible, so long as they do not have a criminal record.

Regarding the passport dilemma, she said the government was trying to find a “fair solution,” taking into account those who continued to pay tax regularly while abroad and those who are now facing demands to pay substantial back-taxes.