Guest Column

The Exiles Return

By Min Zin 9 September 2012

In 2009, Moe Thee Zun, a famous student leader during Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy movement and a former chairman of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front, flung his shoe at a car carrying then-prime minister Thein Sein while he was attending the UN General Assembly in New York. He argued that Thein Sein and the repressive military junta ruling Burma do not represent the people of Burma—whom they brutally killed during the peaceful protests of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Now Moe Thee Zun is back in Burma after 24 years in exile. The student leader, who was condemned to death in absentia by the old military regime, can now legally return to his homeland—now that-President Thein Sein’s pseudo-civilian government has removed his name, along with 2,081 others, from a blacklist denying him entry into the country. After his arrival on Saturday he held a press conference at which he declared that he had returned to help the president’s reform process and make peace in the war-torn areas of the country.

Moe Thee Zun is not the only one. A whole host of prominent exiled political activists are making their way back this week. A group including two high-profile activists—Naing Aung, the former chairman of one of the biggest student organizations formed in the wake of the 1988 crackdown, and Thaung Htun, the foreign policy czar of the exile movement—arrived in Burma a day earlier than Moe Thee Zun. (Naing Aung is surrounded by journalists as he lands at the Yangon international airport in the image above.) This group was followed by the arrival of Aung Moe Zaw, the leader of a Burmese political party in exile. The latest returnee is Maung Maung, a well-connected figure in Burma’s powerful exile trade union that managed to bring the issue of forced labor to the International Labor Organization, which then imposed sanctions on Burma. All of these returnees, who were once condemned enemies of the state, have now vowed to assist with Thein Sein’s reforms and contribute their experiences, expertise, and resourcefulness. The president is likely to receive all of them.

Like all the other intriguing shifts in Burma’s recent political reform, this turn of events is dazzling—and also somewhat bewildering.

First, these latest returns are important because all the figures involved are heavyweight politicians. Since Thein Sein came into office after the 2010 general elections, a considerable number of exiled elites have returned home. But they are mostly technocrats and journalists. In general, bringing politicians back home is riskier for the government. Politicians, after all, ultimately seek power, and they have the capacity to mobilize the public. Although some of these latest returnees have controversial political pasts, such as their alleged involvement in killing fellow students in the jungle where they were based as they fought alongside ethnic rebels against the former junta, their strength when it comes to political networking and raising resources is not to be underestimated.

The second puzzling issue is why the government has risked their return. Apparently, the government does not need the support of the exile community to de-escalate conflict between the authorities and the opposition. Such conflicts have been mitigated by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s entry into the military-dominated parliament and the release of hundreds of political prisoners such as prominent 88 Generation student leaders like Min Ko Naing. If you sincerely believe that politics in Burma should be a matter of everyone, including Aung San Suu Kyi, working happily together under the president’s enlightened leadership to transform the country for the better, then the happy ending has, arguably, already arrived.

If you have a more cutthroat view of politics, however, it’s probably worth considering every possible scenario. The government is likely to seek the assistance of the returnees to build bridges to the leaders of the ethnic armies, because these exile activists have developed long-standing ties with the leaders of the ethnic groups—not only in the jungle, but also on their visits to western capitals. President Thein Sein can also use the returnees to lobby the West, especially the U.S. He needs help not only in overcoming the remaining sanctions, but also to get aid for development and post-conflict rehabilitation.

The hidden gains, however, might be even more favorable for the government. Bringing these prominent exiles back and giving them political space inside the country promotes the impression that Aung San Suu Kyi is not the sole representative of the opposition movement. The president has worked hard to bring all forces together by meeting with leaders of legal political parties, ethnic minority politicians, and now the exiles, as well as Suu Kyi and the leaders of the ethnic military groups. Not so long ago, international and domestic voices were demanding that the way to solve Burma’s crisis was by holding a tripartite dialogue between the military, Aung San Suu Kyi (standing for the pro-democracy opposition), and the ethnic minorities. All three forces are equally important players. But now the scene has changed. The military-backed president has emerged as the patron who reigns above them all as he guides diverse forces to their assigned roles in the state-led transition. This perception and policy shift is a huge victory for the Burmese military. Of course, whether this state-led corporatist political arrangement will resolve the country’s deep-seated problems is highly debatable.

Like so many exiles in other countries in the past, these Burmese groups are not united. These latest returnees appear to be doing little to coordinate their efforts with one another, much less with the key domestic players like Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 Generation group. If the government encourages the opposition returnees to run in the 2015 general election, it will likely undermine, or at least complicate, Suu Kyi’s campaign for leadership. This scenario would serve the interests of the military-backed party, which overwhelmingly lost to Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in the by-elections this past spring.

But perhaps I am splitting hairs. As the late Edward Said once observed, exile is “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place.” It is always commendable to enable an alienated human soul to re-attach to its roots. For this reason alone, President Thein Sein deserves major kudos.

Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.