Burma’s exiles can return - if they promise to be good

Political activists told they must sign written 'undertakings' before getting re-entry visas

Burmese exiles taking up the invitation of President Thein Sein to return to their country now that a wave of democratic reforms is underway, have been required to sign written undertakings that they will avoid criticising the government or publishing anything that could “harm the state”. Activists claim the government's demand reveals that the changes in Burma only go so far.

In the summer of 2011 and again this spring, Thein Sein invited the thousands or even millions of Burmese who had fled the country for "various reasons" to return. Confronted by a shortage of educated workers, including teachers and engineers, he said the government would even help them find jobs or develop businesses.

But for some exiles the offer is not without strings. A number of Burmese who left the country to avoid repression or else to find work

- especially political activists - have been told they need to sign the five-point undertaking before they will be granted a visa.

Phone Kyaw, 34, who left Burma for Australia in 1999 after being involved in the democracy movement as a student, said he recently applied for visa to allow him to visit for the first time in more than a decade. Mr Kyaw, who lives in Perth and has three children, said that in addition to the visa application form, the Burmese embassy sent him a copy of an agreement.

"You have to agree to have no involvement in politics and do no actions that might damage the government," said Mr Kyaw, who is currently employed at a gold mine.

Nyo Ohn Myint, a member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy's (NLD) Thailand office, visited Burma a few weeks ago. He said he was also asked to sign the agreement but refused. He was only permitted to go after a government minister intervened. "If there had been any conditions I would not have accepted it," he said. He said he believed it was no longer the Burmese government's official policy to make people sign but that individual immigration officers were asking them to.

Others had no choice but to sign. U Zaw Myint, another overseas member of the NLD, who lived in Malaysia, was obliged to sign a similar document when he visited the country in June. According to a report in the Myanmar Times, the document was "a pledge not to directly or indirectly harm the dignity of the state and its constitution". Mr Myint said: "After I saw the invitation to come back home in each of the president's speeches, I went to the Myanmar embassy in Malaysia in January and informed them of my wish to go back home."

A copy of the agreement, obtained and translated by The Independent, says that to pay back the government's "generosity", exiles must agree to (1) avoid actions that would disrespect the government, (2) not to partake in actions that cause public instability, not to motivate people to partake in actions that cause public instability and not to publish anything critical of the government that could destroy the country’s stability, (3) avoid contact with illegal organisations, (4) avoid actions that are against the government and (5) show gratitude to the government and live within the law.

The issue of exiles returning to Burma is set to be a major test for the government of Thein Sein. Many have skills the country badly needs after years of under-investment in training and education and with its population largely cut off from the outside world.

Yet many of those hundreds who have been returning in recent months are former activists and dissidents and represent a potential threat to a supposedly civilian government that is still backed and supported by the military. The numbers of those returning is likely to increase after the government in August announced it was removing the names of up to 2,000 people who had been on its visa blacklist, among them former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Ms Suu Kyi's two sons and the veteran Australian reporter John Pilger.

Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK, claimed the document showed that reforms in Burma were "skin deep".

"Thein Sein faces a dilemma. Luring exiles home is important as they are one of the main sources of information about human rights abuses in the country. However, once home they will be dangerous as they will be effective advocates for change. This contract seems to be the way they are dealing with that dilemma," he said. "Political prisoners were released conditionally and now exiles are being told they can return conditionally. With all repressive laws still on the books, the threat of jail hangs over any returning exile who is critical of the government."

It is not clear what punishment would befall anyone who breaks the signed agreement. But campaigners say that despite the flurry of reforms enacted by Thein Sein since an election in November 2010 - the release of most political prisoners, the lifting of many restrictions on the media and the right to hold protests - there have been several incidents that might make exiles think twice before returning.

This summer, lawyer and activist Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min returned to Burma having fled in 2008 when he was charged with contempt of court after three clients he was representing turned their backs on judges during what they said was a politically-motivated case. Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min escaped to Thailand but returned to Rangoon this spring after hearing the offer from the government only to find the himself pursued again over the contempt charge. In August he was found guilty and jailed for six months.

Phone Kyaw, who was intending to visit to see if he and his family could return to Burma full-time, said he was prepared to sign the agreement and did so. But he said embassy officials in Australia denied him a visa after he posted the document on a social media website. "If you're in the top leadership you can say anything. There is no rule of law in Burma," he said.

Phone calls and an email to the Burmese embassy in Canberra were not answered.

Suggested Topics
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor