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As part of its one-year review, the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population announced this week that 275 people from Burma and 385 foreigners had been removed from the visa blacklist.
Earlier this year, I was denied a visa allowing me to enter Burma. Without having been told, I had been placed back on the visa blacklist. No explanation was given as to why this had happened, or when.
News of my being banned from Burma again, under a National League for Democracy-led government, was enough of a surprise to generate media coverage. A human rights activist who spent almost two decades campaigning for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi was banned by her government — by a ministry under her direct control.
It seems many people thought the blacklist was history. A few weeks after the NLD entered government last year, it announced that it was taking people off the visa ban roster. Reports at the time about exactly how many were taken off and left on were contradictory, but left people with the impression that banning people for their political and human rights work would be a thing of the past.
In fact, a large number of human rights and democracy activists were kept on the list, including many from Burma. Not only that, people are still being added to the list, such as the photographer Greg Constantine. Many choose to keep silent. Foreigners often hope their foreign ministries or ambassadors to Burma will be able to negotiate their being taken off, and this has happened. People from Burma don’t have this option, but many stay silent because they hope that by doing so they can find a way to negotiate being taken off, or because they fear reprisals against family members in Burma. In short, the blacklist is still silencing activists.
I have been encouraged to speak out to draw attention to the problem. Zoya Phan, campaigns manager at Burma Campaign UK, has done the same after an MP tried — and failed — to have her taken off the visa blacklist. People need to know this is happening, and the government must be pressured to end this practice.
The government had not made public that it was reviewing the visa ban list, and the removal of another 660 people is very welcome. However, there is also a sting in the tail: The NLD-led government admitted that it also added 20 people from Burma and 341 foreigners to the list over the past year.
No clear explanation was given for this. Myint Kyaing, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, was quoted as saying: “The ministry adds a person’s name to the list when he or she fails to perform their duties and obligations in relation to the law. When this happens, we have to put that person in the blacklist. But, when the relevant authorities cleared the individual, their names are removed from the list.” This explanation is as clear as mud. As of 31 March 2016, 443 people from Burma and 3,937 foreigners were still on the list.
I have been on and off the blacklist several times since my first visit to Burma in 2004. For myself it is an inconvenience, but for people from Burma it’s much more than that; for them, being on the blacklist means being unable to return to your own country. It means being unable to visit family or friends. It means missing weddings and births, and funerals of loved ones. It is cruel, and also heart-breaking when it is being done by a government led by a party that you campaigned for and supported while in exile.
The contradictory comments made off the record by NLD leaders when asked about my being barred entry to Burma highlighted the total lack of transparency about how the blacklist operates: It was stated that it was done by the military to make the NLD government look bad. It was stated that the military still controlled the list. It was stated that it was a bureaucratic mistake. It was stated that no one knew I was on it.
Most of these statements appear to be false. The NLD government does control who is on the blacklist, as they have just stated so officially.
Prior to this week, at no point was it stated publicly that the government was still reviewing the list, or that people were still being added. I haven’t been told whether I am one of the 385 foreigners who have been taken off, nor whether I was one of the people added.
It’s time that the lack of transparency ended. The NLD-led government needs to come clean; they need to publish who is on the list, and what criteria are used for placing and keeping people on this list. There are five key questions they need to answer.
- Which ministries are involved in compiling the visa ban list?
- Which ministry and minister has overall responsibility for the compilation and implementation of the visa ban list?
- Will the government make the visa ban list public with the reasons for why people are on the list?
- What criteria are used for adding and keeping people on the visa ban list?
- Why have Burmese human rights activists been kept on the visa ban list?
The NLD-led government has inherited so many problems, some of which may take decades to solve. At the same time though, there are many problems that are relatively easy to solve quickly, and the visa ban list is one of them.
A year into the NLD government’s term in office, there is no excuse for still banning human rights and democracy activists from their own country simply because someone in power didn’t like what they said or did. That’s not how a government that respects human rights behaves. Until the NLD-led government adopts a transparent policy about how it operates the visa ban list, its reputation will continue to be stained by the appearance that it is using one of the same tactics of the former dictatorship to stifle dissent.
Mark Farmaner is director of London-based Burma Campaign UK.