Blacklisted from Burma’s Reform

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 31 August 2012

Burma seems to have had an impressively longest blacklist—a total of 6,165 names—as the product of its decades-long history of oppressive, dictatorial rule.

When the President’s Office published the 2,082 struck off names on its website on Thursday, many Burmese in exile were busy checking to see if they were now persona grata. While some were lucky, others were not.

More than 4,000 names remain on the list and who they are exactly is still an official secret.

The long blacklist was accumulated by several ministries, including the ministries of home and foreign affairs, over past decades. It was believed that the notorious Military Intelligence (MI) run by ex-general Khin Nyunt, acting as Big Brother, contributed considerably to the inventory.

It is bizarre to look at who has been removed. The list included late US Congressman Tom Lantos and late Philippine President Corazon Aquino, as well as late veteran Burmese journalist and fierce government critic U Thaung, who died in the United States after seeking political asylum.

Death heals old wounds, apparently.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was also mentioned. In 1995, she visited Burma while serving as US ambassador to the United Nations and met opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and MI chief Khin Nyunt on separate occasions. The meeting between Albright and Khin Nyunt reportedly became sour after she criticized the regime. Perhaps, her name was chalked up immediately afterwards.

Fundamentally, the government blacklist is comprised of foreign diplomats, dissidents, academics, journalists, artists and so on. Suu Kyi’s sons, Alexander and Kim Aris, who were also taken off on Thursday, were probably the exceptions—their only real crime being the notoriety of their illustrious mother.

On the other hand, some Burmese found themselves mentioned despite barely getting involved in anti-government activities. During the era of Big Brother, anyone deemed suspicious might be included on a whim.

That is why some doctors, academics and business people who live in Burma were shocked to be included on the list despite largely steering clear of politics. All those denied passport applications and that constant feeling of surveillance suddenly began to make sense.

It shows how the former junta lived under a cloud of paranoia during the past half-century. But what about the current nominally civilian government? It is moving forward but cannot shed that suspicious mindset.

It took more than a year for reformist President Thein Sein’s administration to trim just one third off the blacklist—revealing just how sluggish the reform process has been.

Just a few months after taking office in March 2011, Thein Sein invited Burmese people living in exile to return to the country and take part in the reform process. However, no formal procedures to welcome them back are in place.

Of course, the condensed list is part of a larger program of change. If those academics, scholars and other professions as well as dissidents go back to their country, they will probably be able to contribute to the current democratic transition.

But the question still lingers how the government will allow them to do what they want.

Five decades of Burma’s iron-fisted rule created a large and strong exiled community across the world. This sprung up soon after dictator Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, and has since grown exponentially due to continuous oppression by authoritarian and military rulers. The country has lost generations of energy and brains.

Some say that the growth of the exiled community stopped after the government initiated the recent reform process. But a large number remain outside Burma with their families and are in no rush to return.

This includes the remaining 4,000-odd people still on the blacklist. But the actual number is certainly larger taking into account their families and descendents. The exiled community of Burma is huge, diverse in ethnicity and strong in the professions represented—a separate nation of people scattered all over the world.

The era of exile should come to an end, but this can only happen when Burma can rid itself of ongoing ethnic conflicts, human rights violations and bad governance. And part of that means consigning the entire concept of a blacklist to the history books.