Burma Partnership, Strengthening Cooperation for a Free Burma
Signup Now!
Join our mailing list for latest news and information about Burma.

Mizzima News: ‘We want our return to be guaranteed by policy and law’

Originally appeared in Mizzima

January 20, 2015

After the change of government in 2011, President U Thein Sein invited members of the Myanmar diaspora to return home. In August 2012, more than 2,000 people, including dissidents and foreign activists, were removed from a government blacklist. Many returnees hold foreign passports and have encountered difficulties caused mainly by unclear policy and visa application procedures. Among them is veteran activist Ma Khin Ohmar, a founder and coordinator of the human rights organisation, Burma Partnership. In a wide-ranging interview, Ma Khin Ohmar spoke with Mizzima’s Portia Larlee about seeking political asylum in the United States, activism on the Thai-Myanmar border and her struggle to acquire a visa in Myanmar.

What happened when you applied for a visa after being removed from the blacklist in 2012?

In October 2012 I was one of the very first from the blacklist who applied for a visa at the embassy in Bangkok. My first trip to Myanmar was during the last week of October 2012 and it was only 28 days. Then I was issued another 28-day social visa, a class for former Burmese citizens.

Getting a visa was pretty easy until October 2014. The visa was issued within the same day, but before this current trip, I had to wait for two weeks.

What were other returnees experiencing?

Some people had to fill out an eight-page form including a family history check – involving both sides of the family. I heard the Special Branch would visit the families before they could get their visa. The authorities handle every case differently.

Why do you think the visa application process was easier for you than others who had been blacklisted?

Like I said, for the first year and a half I would fill out the two-page form in the morning and pick up my visa that afternoon. I don’t know why the process was difficult for other people. What that tells me is that this current government has either no clear policy or they have a very targeted and calculated policy in dealing with us activists. I think at that time the government was trying to win the heart of the West, especially Washington. It was an exchange between the Myanmar government and Western governments, I think. A give and take.

In early 2012, President’s office Minister U Aung Min began visiting dissidents on the Thai-Myanmar border to encourage a mass return before the blacklist was removed. What was the outcome of those visits?

In the beginning before the blacklist was removed, the government invited a group of prominent activists to return, including my husband Dr Naing Aung. I refused to join because I didn’t want that kind of concession. I didn’t think that was a real deal. About 20 of them came to Burma.

That first trip sounds like a publicity stunt.

It was more than a PR stunt. That would be just for their image – but they gained a lot politically and materially. The government was trusted more by Washington and the West. There were political legitimacy and economic advantages. The question is, when they invited us back, how much of that concession was with genuine political will? When Minister Aung Min came with his team to the border they asked us to come back – and there were incentives promised to us, including permanent residency.

Did you make any demands on the government about your return?

At that time we asked for the ability to be politically active when we returned. We wanted to do activities like human rights education and contribute to the reform toward a genuine democracy. We wanted a systematic foundation rather than relying on individuals and personalities. We want our return to be guaranteed by policy and law. For example, we didn’t want to rely on the President because he is a reformist. At that time he was praised as a reformist. We didn’t want to rely on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi either.

We wanted a system change and we told Minister Aung Min this. We left home because of the system and if we are to come home it is because the system has changed or will change. We will still take the opportunity of this current opening, but the whole reason for coming back is not to reunite with our families, have a comfortable life and do business. It is because we want to come back to work for the democratisation. So that was our deal, even though this was not officially recognised or agreed, that was our honest discussion.

What do you think were the motives behind the minister’s visits?

They [government] wanted to claim themselves as the elected government. They can’t have political dissident groups outside the country if they want to claim to be elected by the people. So for their political legitimacy, they need us to come back into the country. They need us more than Washington; they need us first. That’s how I see it and that’s why I didn’t go with that first group before the blacklist was removed.

Who were the activists that the government wanted to make that first visit?

Long-term activists who had not stopped in the past 25 years no matter where they were. We travelled all over the world, worked for the UN resolutions every year, spoke in the US Congress. So if we were the ones coming back of course they would gain a lot of legitimacy. It’s a symbol.

You were a student activist and after the 1988 national uprising was crushed you fled to the jungle and joined the All Burma students’ Democratic front. Tell me about your years on the border.

I left the country with this outraged feeling because the army just killed us on the street and I found no reason for why they had to do that to us. This country fought for independence through the armed struggle. We had no Gandhi, no non-violent protest. The country struggled for independence from the Japanese and British through armed means. And before that the Burmese kingdoms conquered each other through fighting
and killing. So I thought the only way for us was to engage in armed struggle to continue our struggle for democracy. I was never homesick because I left with a purpose. I still feel the same way.

What did you learn during that time?

I learned I knew very little about my country. I was born and raised in Yangon, part of the [Bamar] majority, I didn’t face discrimination because of my ethnic identity. No one laughed at me because of my Burmese speaking. And I am Buddhist and therefore never had a problem with my church being burned down. I was in the privileged class. But when I got to the jungle I saw generations of ethnic communities who didn’t have equal rights. I thought ‘how could this be happening outside of my knowledge?’ All of that propaganda from that so-called socialist but already a military regime that I put up with all of my life. I thought this is absolutely bogus. This country’s problems were a lot bigger and deeper than I thought and I knew the struggle would be long.

In late 1990 you sought political asylum in the us. Why did you end up in Washington?

I was the first Burmese political refugee case to be processed and approved by the US government. During my interview at the embassy in Bangkok I was asked where I wanted to go, so I said, Washington, D.C. They asked me why and I said because I hear that’s where the politics is.

You have been unwaveringly dedicated to the democracy movement. Do you think there is a link between being outspoken and your visa delays?

I have been very politically and critically vocal. Some of my colleagues suggested I “tone it down”. But if the government claims to be elected, reformist and democratic, well prove it. Don’t ask me to tone it down. This is democracy. If you don’t have the skin for that, build it up. Another time, in March 2013, I was asked to stop talking to the international community and media.

By whom?

I won’t mention the name but it was a minister. Of course, I can’t. I am an advocate and as long as things are wrong for the people, I will continue to raise my voice and advocate for the right. I will continue to be a politically conscious human rights activist and a political critic. Ever since my husband and I returned we have been under surveillance by the Special Branch. So what is the government doing with us? Do they just want us to come back and become submissive and quiet and just fade away from our activist life?

When Minister Aung Min visited us at the border he said “be patient, there are only seven or eight of us in the government cabinet, including the President, who are reformist.” He said they needed our support and they would “give” us democracy but it would take some time. Democracy isn’t something the government can “give” us. So my husband responded saying, “We know democracy doesn’t come in 24 hours – but you should not think either that you have to give us the democracy!”

Returnee visa application case decisions seem to vary significantly. will the diaspora respond collectively?

In December two applicants before me were rejected in Thailand. In Australia they were told they could not apply anymore. My husband applied in New York and he was asked to fill in the section pledging to not be involved in political activities. He refused to fill it in. Finally, he was asked to write down what he intended to do, so he did – and was accepted.

I think we missed our chance to respond collectively and now the issue of returnees has become a case-by-case issue, which is easy for the government. And our call will be a lower priority. The farmers are calling for their land, the workers are calling for their minimum wage, the students are calling for their education policy reform. Of course our cause is no different than the students or the civil societies, but we are returnees and we can be removed from the picture. The government can do this anytime.

How do you cope with your uncertain status?

Let’s say I can’t come back again, I will still cherish my time of two years inside. We were able to make important international and regional connections and contribute towards strengthening the civil society. But some things have changed. When I first came back I was surprised by how many people recognised me from media such as DVB. I went to places like Shwedagon Pagoda and Mandalay Maha Myatmuni Pagoda and flower sellers came to greet me and thanked me for saying things that reflect their opinions and then they asked, ‘why did you stop talking about our situation?’ I told them I didn’t stop talking, it’s just that the media doesn’t broadcast my points anymore. Maybe because I don’t step down from my critical advocacy tone.

Do you intend to apply for permanent residency?

I am considering and therefore I went to gather information from the Immigration office. I have the publication on the bylaws and the application form. My understanding is that there are clauses that will scrutinise our political activism. There is a clause on the application in which I have to acknowledge that I will not be involved in political parties and not support “dissension” of race and religion.

Also, the applicant – and their family members – must not be international refugees or political asylum seekers. Another clause says even if the applicant is a citizen of another country but has a family member who is still not a citizen through the refugee resettlement or political asylum seeking process, they will not be granted PR. This is a key issue for exiled activists. I am going to consult a lawyer.

This post is in: News Clip