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‘Welcome Home’ Greeted with Skepticism

Originally appeared in The Irrawaddy

August 18, 2011

Most Burmese exile groups were skeptical about an announcement by President Thein Sein on Wednesday that his government would allow dissidents to return to the country, but at least some welcomed the idea as something worth considering.

In a speech to local businessmen in Napyidaw, Thein Sein said the government would take a “benevolent attitude” toward exiles who chose to return.

“We will make reviews to make sure that Myanmar [Burmese] citizens living abroad for some reasons can return home if they have not committed any crimes. And if a Myanmar citizen in a foreign country who committed crimes applies for returning home to serve terms, we will show our benevolent attitude in dealing with his case,” Thein Sein said, according to the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar on Thursday.

However, Thein Sein’s speech was “clearly nothing more than a public relations exercise aimed at improving the image of his regime in the international community,” said prominent activist Khin Ohnmar, who is the coordinator of the Burma Partnership.

“We will not naïvely believe what the regime says until they prove it with actions. The problem is that the regime sees political activists as having broken the law or committed crimes. They refuse to acknowledge that those nearly 2,000 people in prisons are political prisoners, held for their political beliefs,” she said.

“Those of us outside the country continuing with the struggle are political activists trying to bring about the real change that our country needs, which is a democratic federal system where democratic principles are upheld, people’s human rights are protected and ethnic equality is guaranteed. We are not criminals,” she said.

She urged government to issue an official directive regarding this offer to exiled activists; release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally; declare a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic groups; and engage in genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and ethnic groups officially and on equal terms.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday, Moe Zaw Oo, the secretary of the exiled National League for Democracy (Liberated Area) Foreign Affairs Committee, said time will tell if Thein Sein’s offer is a meaningful one.

“We are implementing our movement to change our country. If real change takes place, we will go back to Burma. But we haven’t seen any evidence of real change inside the country, so we will have to wait and see how this pans out,” he said.

Some observers noted that this isn’t the first time that a Burmese regime has offered an amnesty to exiles. In 1980, former dictator Ne Win allowed U Nu, the first democratically elected prime minister of Burma, to return to Rangoon, and after the 1988 pre-democracy uprising, the country’s newly installed military junta invited students who went underground and left Burma to return.

Harn Lay, The Irrawaddy’s illustrator and cartoonist, said that while most exiles would like to go back to their own country if they had a chance, it was meaningless for the regime to offer an amnesty to exiles as long as it continued to refuse to release political prisoners, engage in a dialogue with the NLD and the Shan National League for Democracy, and enter a ceasefire agreement with ethnic armed groups.

“They [the government] are making an offer to outside groups without entering a dialogue with the opposition inside. Since independence, the people haven’t had a government they can trust. The people are only expected to sacrifice for government,” said Harn Lay.

A freelance reporter working for exiled media organizations said that the only condition that would persuade him to return to Burma would be the restoration of press freedom in the country.

“As a journalist, I want go back to Burma, because that’s where the sources of information are,” he said. “However, the government is still not practicing democracy.”

Another issue, he said, was the continued imprisonment of journalists.

“It would not be fair to go back while many fellow reporters are still behind bars,” he said.

However, a well-known comedian known as Godzilla said that as an artist, he felt it was important to work within the country.

“After living in the outside world, I can see that real reform can best be achieved from inside the country, rather than outside,” he said.

View the original article here.

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