By Francis Wade
Burmese nationals who fled the country following the infamous 1988 popular uprising are allowed to return to their country, President Thein Sein is rumoured to have said in a speech today.
Thousands of Burmese who took part in the protests or the subsequent armed uprising have since 1988 lived in exile, the majority in Thailand and the US. While there has been no explicit ban on their return, the very real threat of them being jailed upon setting foot in Burma has forced many to remain abroad.
Whether that threat has diminished however remains unclear. Thein Sein was quoted by The Voice journal as telling businessmen in Naypyidaw this afternoon that those “who committed a crime” would still be punished. The comments appeared on the journal’s Facebook page.
Burma’s laws are notoriously malleable, and close to 2,100 political prisoners are behind bars, among them monks, journalists, politicians and relief workers. Hundreds were jailed following the 1988 protests, while thousands more fled the threat of arrest.
Business tycoon Khin Shwe, who runs the Zaykabar company and was present at the meeting, told DVB however that Thein Sein said all “minor offenses would be pardoned”.
“One of the main things [the president] said is for those individuals abroad to come back to the country and work for development of the nation.”
Khin Ohmar, chairperson of the Network for Democracy and Development, took part in the uprising as a student, and eventually fled to the border. There she joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), the main armed group that formed following the uprising, before settling down in Thailand.
She said that until Thein Sein made an official statement on the subject, his comments must be approached with caution. “For those of us outside [Burma], there are benchmarks we have for our country that must be realised – for example, the release of political prisoners, cessation of attacks against ethnic minorities, and so on. Unless there is genuine reform, then what he says cannot be taken seriously.”
The work of the various NGOs and campaign groups formed by Burmese exiles since 1988 is being carried out in order to ensure that one day Burma is stable enough for its countrymen to return home, she continued.
“We don’t reject the proposal [Thein Sein] made, because this is what we all want, but we must question how serious he really is.”
Those who do decide to return to Burma are to contact local administrations in the townships they lived in to inquire about details, The Voice added.
How the apparent change in attitude of the government will affect opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the government has spent years attempting to sideline and silence, is similarly uncertain. Having spent much of the past two decades under house arrest, she can leave the country, but it is widely acknowledged that she may not be allowed to return.
Additional reporting by Ahunt Phone Myat