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DVB Debate: What role for exiles in reforming Burma?

As Naypyidaw continues it’s lurching progress towards political reform, it is estimated that five million Burmese are watching from the outside. Forced out of the country over five decades of dictatorial rule and economic downwards spiralling, many are now considering whether it is time to go home. On this week’s episode of DVB Debate, the panel sizes up the political and economic role for former exiles and economic migrants in a new Burma.

Amid Burma’s expats and exiles are some of the country’s brightest and best educated. A brutal crackdown on students in 1988 saw thousands of Burmese and ethnic intellectuals hunted out of the country by the junta’s secret police. Another crackdown on monk-led protests in 2007 resulted in a new generation of students and civil society members forced into hiding.

Between these two bloody events, the brain drain worsened, as more and more of Burma’s skilled worker’s lost faith in an economy dominated by cronyism and crippled by sanctions.

Now, sanctions have dropped as a result of Naypyidaw’s 2010 pivot towards political and economic reform. Foreign investment is returning to Burma as the country’s financial and civic circumstances normalise. At the outset, this seemed a perfect invitation for Burma’s missing millions to return home. But is life in a new Burma living up to what the returning expats had imagined?

Former exile Tin Maung Aye returned to Burma from the United States to start up the Myanmar Mobile Education Workshop, a service that provides classes and learning materials to Burma’s working children. He said returning home hasn’t been easy.

“The perceptions and intentions we had in exile are not practical when we return home.”

Yet Naypyidaw is persistent. Once eager to keep an eye on its foreign dissenters, the government is now willing Burmese experts back, to help reinvent what was a pariah state.

“Whether the government invites us back or not,” Tin Maung Aye continued, “It should be our own decision as to whether to return.”

Soe Myint is the founder and editor-in-chief at Mizzima, a prominent “exile media” outlet established in New Delhi, India during his 24 years outside of  Burma. Mizzima was the first exile media organisation to return as the country’s draconian censorship laws fell in 2012. He reminds the audience that a truly democratic government will accept dissenting voices.

Returning exiles “may not say good things about the government, they may criticise the government,” he began.

“But if those people can put their effort into the development of the country, they should be welcomed with a genuine welcome.”

However, obstacles remain. The low wages on offer in Burma are leaving skilled workers irresolute as to whether to return.

“With just 120,000 [US$12] salary per month, we cannot come back and work here,” said political and financial analyst Kyaw Lin Oo.

Citizenship is another significant hurdle. Many regime exiles were naturalised by their adopted states. A large cut of would-be returns hold passports belonging to countries varying from Norway, to Australia, from the Czech Republic to the United States. Burmese law stipulates that its citizens may only hold one nationality, and former outcasts are again caught in the middle. It remains a question whether Burmese that renounce foreign citizenship will have Burmese citizenship retuned to them.

“For me, though I’ve applied for a passport to go abroad, I have never gotten one, not even a reply,” said political scientist Dr Min Myo.

“Maybe I am not close to the government,” he mused. “I’ve seen people that are close to the government getting them at once.”

Dr Kyaw Yin Hlaing is an organiser at the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC), an internationally funded body that has brokered ongoing peace negotiations between the government and ethnic armed groups.

“I think many of the returnees who have worked towards nation building when they returned have got their citizenship back,” he said, suggesting that those who can not demonstrate their contribution may struggle.

The MPC is led by returned former dissidents, such as Kyaw Yin Hlaing as well as prominent former activists Hla Maung Shwe and Aung Naing Oo