MYANMAR: Refugees and dissidents react to reforms

CHIANG MAI/MAE SOT, 29 MARCH 2012 (IRIN) – How much does it take to repair trust once it is broken? How welcoming does home need to be to coax someone to return? IRIN met with Burmese exiles, dissidents and refugees living in northern Thailand to discover their reactions to ongoing reforms in Myanmar.

Here is a sample of their views, gathered in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and the western border town of Mae Sot.

Salai Yaw Aung, 48, All Burma's Student Democracy Front (ABSDF)

Photo: Steve Sanders/IRIN
Salai Yaw Aung
“Burma is still my home and I have to go back, but not now, because nothing has really changed. There is a need for real political change.

“I have one new baby boy in my family. At the moment I cannot take my family back because there is no guarantee for us. We don't see physical development in the country, like improving health care and education. In my opinion, they are just showing off for the international community ahead of the ASEAN meeting in 2014 in Burma.

“My brother and my nephew were released from prison on 13 January. It made my Mom very happy. My nephew is doing well but my brother, Zaw Zaw Min, has liver problems. He was jailed in August 2007, almost five years ago. But there are still many political prisoners in jail [to whom] the government denied release, including some ABSDF members. The government convicted many of them with non-political charges to keep them inside.”

Aung Naing Oo, 41, Burma policy analyst, Vahu Development Institute, Chiang Mai University

Photo: Steve Sanders/IRIN
Aung Naing Oo
“We still need a lot of changes, so I think the real test will come when these necessary reforms are implemented.

“Generally I am very encouraged by what I saw [during my first visit to Myanmar on 10 February]. We had a number of meetings with small ministers, big ministers, parliamentarians, political parties. We spoke to everyone on the street every chance we got. Everybody is optimistic.

“At the same time, on the issue of freedom - the economic prosperity is not there or being felt within the communities. That's why there is scepticism among the people. In the beginning there was no expectation from the government because the majority of the people saw the government as an extension of the previous regime. Now, suddenly, the freedom and expectations are building up, so I don't know how the government will manage the growing expectations.”

Nyo Ohn Myint, 49, co-founder of the youth wing of the opposition party, National League of Democracy (NLD), and current peace liaison between the Myanmar government and various ethnic groups

Photo: Steve Sanders/IRIN
Nyo Ohn Myint
“The government policy towards exiles isn't very clear. The Burmese government has an unseen strategy and they are not ready to receive us. The president welcomed us [exiles] , and at the same time - in my case, for example - [I still face charges from] 20 years ago [for] supporting an exiled government.

“While I am ready to face the charges… what about the perpetrators on the government side? The generals who killed the monks and the innocent people? They are free and have a very comfortable life. The president should think about fairness.

In February, when I went back to Mawlamyine [capital of Mon State in southern Myanmar] for the peace process with the New Mon State Party, I really got the feeling that the country needs people like us to help rebuild. That's why I changed my mind to not only support the NLD and democratization, but also some kind of national agenda, country rebuilding, and ethnic reconciliation with the government. That's my first priority.

“From what I have seen, in my own experience, is that the ethnics distrust the government so much, and the government also distrusts the ethnics. Both sides have to look at it as a healing process.” 

Charm Tong, 31, co-founder of the Shan Women's Action Network  

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Charm Tong
“Even though there have been ceasefire agreements signed in the ethnic areas by the ethnic groups, on the ground there is still some fighting against the Shan State Army in the region. There are over 150 government battalions in Shan State, which is nearly a quarter of Burma's army, and they have not withdrawn anywhere.

“So… the civilians and local villagers… [still have] to deal with all these troops from Burma's regime. People still live in fear and there is no guarantee of their safety for people on the ground. My home town in central Shan State is still under conflict.
“The people of Burma want more trust to be built up for reconciliation to happen. But we also want justice for the people who have been suffering through decades of war, atrocities and systematic human rights abuses. Without listening to the voices of these people, how can we move on?

“Unless the people have the right to make their own decisions on development, it will be difficult to go forward in the peace process.”  

Khin Ohnmar, 44, chairperson, Network for Democracy and Development  

Photo: Courtesy of Khin Ohnmar
Khin Ohnmar
“People like myself and many other colleagues on the [Thai-Burmese] border are ready to go back and join the peace process and make our contribution and [work] towards the nation's building - all together - but there is still so much lack of confidence because of what we have seen on the ground. So [building trust]… is the first step that needs to be done.

“And the other is the return of the exiles. So far the President has said, ‘Okay, you can come back, but if you have committed crimes you have to serve your term.’ But what is the crime? Whose crime? What are they talking about? So for people like me and others on the border, we… [fall into] the category of “unlawful association”, for which we could face at least three years in prison.

“So if we want to go back we write an individual letter to the President. If the President has mercy on us as a victim, we will get a visa to go in[to Myanmar]. And then what? Accountability and transparency of the policies are the key issues for us.”

The following persons were interviewed in refugee camps in Mae Sot, along the Thai-Myanmar border.

La Shwe, 46, Muslim leader

Photo: Will George/IRIN
La Shwe
“We had to run away from heavy fighting and attacks on our community by the Burmese army. If we return, who will guarantee our safety? How do we know we will not end up being oppressed again? The reforms might look good, but they do not make us think it is time to go home. The main question is: how do we know we will be safe?

“The military government says one thing to the international community, but behind [the scenes] they are doing another thing, like oppressing people for their religion. They are calling us to come back, but not planning for our safety and working out how to give us a good life.

“Even though nearly a third of Burma is Muslim they still treat us like outsiders. Many cannot get national registration cards. If we go back we need to see true democracy, which includes Muslim people and does not oppress us for our religion.”

U Nyint Hlain, 73, National League for Democracy (NLD)

Photo: Will George/IRIN
U Nyint Hlain
“We don't trust the Burmese government because of all the things they have done in the past.

“They said they were going to improve in 1962 and 1978, but then they just went back to how they were before. If we go back now, we will criticize the government. This time they will not arrest us, but they will keep notes and afterwards we will be punished. That is what they have always done.

“These changes are not for the Burmese people, they are doing it for their own benefit, so sanctions will be lifted and they can avoid punishment for their previous abuse of our country. We have no law and order in Burma.

“All the power is in the hands of the military, so whatever they say we cannot trust them. There is no guarantee for human rights, and everything is under the regime's control. Even [though] the NLD can enter into the by-elections, they are still under military control. When the situation is like this, it is not safe for refugees to return.”

Satun Wah, 49, Karen refugee

Photo: Will George/IRIN
Satun Wa
“The military regime is only talking but not doing enough to make a peaceful situation in the country. Even though they are doing the PR [public relations] campaign now, we have to keep checking what is going on, because they always go back on their word.

“They have signed a peace treaty with the Karen National Liberation Army, but we know it has not come from their hearts - they are just playing a game with the Karen people so they can get sanctions lifted. They don't truly want to find peace with our people. Even now they have begun fighting with another Karen army.

Thant Thant Sin, 48, former political prisoner

Photo: Will George/IRIN
Thant Thant Sin
“The Burmese government has only changed a little bit. They have not given up anything. They just want something from the international community - that is why they are pretending that they are changing.

“We do not want to be in these camps, we want to go home. The situation here is so bad for us. We have few rations and feel trapped, but right now it is not the time for us to go back. This military regime has repeatedly failed us. If we go back, there is no guarantee we will be safe and will not be sent back to prison.

“The only way we will go back is if UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] has a genuine dialogue with a democratic Burmese government and can assure us that they will protect us. Only then can we go home, and trust that the regime will not punish us just for trying to improve our country.”


For more, visit IRIN's in-depth: What next for Myanmar?