Exiles, Come Home: So Says the President!

In his August 16 speech to a gathering of handpicked cronies and technocrats in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw, President Thein Sein, an ex-general, dropped a bombshell: his government would like Burmese dissidents in exile to “come home” in order to help contribute towards the national development of their birthplace.

Curiously, the real thrust of the President’s speech was about the popularly mandated nature of his quasi-parliamentary government—which works under the directives of the non-elected National Defense and Security Council; the terrorist insurgent nature and lack of public support of the Kachin Independence Organization; and the compassionate nature of the economic measures the government is undertaking in order to alleviate the economic pains of the country’s masses, including the working urban poor, the rural farmers and the pensioners.

Be that as it may, let me single out the issue of the exiles’ return.

Unlike emigrants, political exiles typically look back not only to the circle of immediate and extended family that they left behind, voluntarily or not. They look beyond that circle, to their “home” communities and people. And the greatest dream of political exiles is not to have a prosperous permanent home in the country where they have taken “temporary refuge,” but to return home in order to both reunite with their loved ones who are still alive and contribute to the betterment of the people of their country.

Burmese exiles—who number in the thousands, span several generations and include people from diverse professional and educational backgrounds—are no exception. 

Judging from on-line chats and Facebook discussions, the potent idea of the “exiles’ return” has triggered widespread conversations among the Burmese diasporas. And as a one-time “returnee” from exile in the US, I do feel I have something worthwhile to share with my compatriots on the subject of “going home”— especially when that return home would take place in a climate of political uncertainty and against the backdrop of a government, run by the very same leaders as the old regime, which is unlawfully keeping 2,000 plus fellow dissidents with various talents behind bars.

In particular, I don’t want other exiles to repeat my mistake of seeing the mirage of a negotiable or expandable political and societal space, when in fact no such space actually exists on the ground.

Whatever talents and skills which a Burmese exile may wish to use in order to benefit the welfare of the people and the general development of the country, without this crucial space it is inconceivable that anyone—returnees or existing residents—will be able to productively contribute to nation-building.

So before we exiles and expatriates leap to any excited conclusions and express even the cautious welcome of Thein Sein’s offer as a sign of regime liberalization, we would do well to hold the president’s manifest desire for the return of the natives up against the government’s extremely poor track record of misuse, abuse, under-use and non-use of Burmese citizens, both soldiers and civilians, with talents and skills to contribute.

If Thein Sein, together with his seniors and juniors, are serious about creating the space necessary for Burmese of all ethnic backgrounds to be able to apply their talents and energies towards nation-building, they should start by setting free the 2,000 plus political prisoners and several hundred ex-military intelligence officers who are serving unlawful and lengthy prison sentences in 30 plus jails throughout Burma. For among these prisoners are acclaimed artists, writers, technocrats, teachers, community organizers, doctors, political negotiators, entrepreneurs and so on—with Zaganar, Khun Tun Oo, Mya Aye, Ko Ko Gyi and Htay Kywe springing to mind.

One of the most fundamental obstacles for any Burmese who wishes to use his or her skills and energies in building Burma’s communities and institutions is the neo-totalitarian nature of the overall political economy over which successive military leaders—in mufti or civilian clothing—have presided. 

However, Thein Sein’s government has undertaken a flurry of significant activities recently, including the 180-degree reversal of its strategic stance towards Aung San Suu Kyi, going from printing life-threatening messages in the state media to holding out an olive branch in her direction. In addition, the new administration has been rushing to sign a one-year, temporary ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organization (which the government officially refers to as a “terrorist insurgent” group), has suddenly issued a visa to UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Quintana (who has been denied entry to Burma for the last year), and has attempted to coddle up to the International Monetary Fund.

These actions may be a public relations effort aimed at the Association of South East Asian Nations and the regime’s soft-critics such as the European Union, or possibly the result of a widely-speculated intra-military dynamic taking place among the country’s top leaders. But regardless of the real driving factors, Naypyidaw’s moves certainly give even the harshest critics reason for cautious welcome, if not yet optimism.

But my own first-hand experience in dealing with the generals, both in my capacity as a professional and as a dissident, and more importantly, the military’s nearly half-century track record, tells me that the regime’s view of relations with civilian professionals is little more than that of autocratic masters and professional subordinates.

Neither the military’s institutionalized attitudinal framework towards civilians with talents, skills and creative ideas, nor the country’s institutional framework for decision making, have changed appreciably. Despite a half century of spectacular and verifiable failures, the generals and ex-generals with their neo-totalitarian orientation are still behaving as if they can do no wrong. Without any significant and fundamental change in these two dimensions of the military’s power, policy-making and politics, no meaningful space for any civilians—whether they be community organizers (which dissidents are), entrepreneurs, intellectuals, technocrats or other professionals—can be expected.

In the fall of 2005, and after the ouster of Gen Khin Nyunt and dissolution of his intelligence network, I voluntarily returned to Burma after 17 years in exile as what my regime minders termed “a guest of the State.” I was a mini-VIP, fetched straight from the airplane before anyone disembarked, offered reimbursement for the full international airfare—an offer I refused—and put up in a military guest house with a driver, two personal attendants and a Grade-3 military officer from the Ministry of Defense as my liaison. I held several one-on-one meetings with the then head of intelligence during which I could—and did—offer my views without feeling a need to mince words. All of this was enough to make any returning exile’s head swell and ego bloat with a sense of self-importance.

But despite the regime playing nice with me, to the best of my knowledge none of the ideas and suggestions I was invited to share in writing with the generals has been implemented. There has been no relaxation of restrictions on the Internet, no independent think tank established in the country and no meaningful reconciliation process—not even with second-tier leaders of the opposition such as the “moderate” 88 Generation Student group leader, Htay Kywe. The word “reconciliation” was not even uttered during the Thein Sein government’s first press conference, which was held in Naypyidaw last week.

Even my language of economic “developmental nationalism,” which I thought would resonate with some of the presumably patriotic generals, didn’t result in any appreciable shift in the regime’s budget priorities—which allocate more than 50 percent for armaments and defense, but only 2-5 percent for socially and economically productive domains such as health and education. This is the same government that talks about fertilizers for the country’s farmers and “poverty reduction” with UN officials, but goes on spending billions on Russian-made bombers for the generals.

It is the generals’ and ex-generals’ deeds, not their words, that count. I for one will not be going home any time soon.

Dr Zarni (m.zarni@lse.ac.uk) is Visiting Fellow, Department of International Development, LSE and columnist for the Irrawaddy.

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