The Burmese government said Thursday it will not allow citizens accused of treason or who took asylum in a foreign country to return home, as it published the names of more than 2,000 people removed from an immigration blacklist.
Among those removed from the entry blacklist were opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s Britain-born sons Alexander and Kim Aris and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, as well as Burmese-born citizens who had been living in self-imposed exile during the iron-fist rule of the military junta which gave up power in March last year.
The names of all 2,000 taken off the list appeared on Burmese President Thein Sein’s official website Thursday. About 4,000 others remain on the notorious list.
Burmese dissidents cut from the list cautiously welcomed the move, but were wary that the decision could be reversed at any time and without warning by Thein Sein’s government even though it is moving to implement political and other reforms.
"Whether or not to go back and work inside Burma will be based on each individual’s and group's view. The current situation in Burma is not clear—not clear enough to decide. An arrest could take place at anytime,” said Aung Htoo, exiled former secretary of the Burma Lawyers Council (BLC).
“Just look at Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min. He went back to Burma based on the president's request to return. But … now he is in jail,” he said referring to the political activist and lawyer who was sentenced to six months in prison for charges of contempt of court.
“So even though the names are removed from the blacklist, nobody can say how the government feels about what people did, regardless of whether it was done peacefully, honestly in the name of human rights, or for the nation.”
Ngwe Lin, general secretary of the exiled Democratic Party for a New Society, called the government’s decision to remove the names and publish them “the beginning of an effort to have everyone participate in reform.”
But he also referenced the case of Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, wondering how sincere the government is about granting a reprieve to blacklisted dissidents.
“We are concerned if this could happen to us or to others. [The government] still needs to be clearer about this kind of issue.”
Director of the President’s Office Col. Zaw Htay told RFA that there were conditions preventing the removal of some from the blacklist.
"People who have committed treason against the nation and taken asylum in a foreign country will not be removed from the list," the official said.
He added that there are no restrictions against those removed from the list, and that if they were to face any trouble obtaining travel visas at Burmese diplomatic missions abroad, they would be entitled to file a complaint.
“This is also the case for those Burma-born individuals of foreign nationality seeking a permanent residence permit in our country,” he said.
But questions remained over what criteria were used to assemble the list and what guarantees existed for returning activists.
Bo Kyi, joint secretary for the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), and who also had the immigration ban lifted, said the Burmese government should explain how and when it compiled the list.
"If there are no strings attached, we can say this is a welcome move. I can see step-by-step progress in their reform process,” he said from his organization’s headquarters near the Thai-Burma border.
“However it is not enough just to remove exiles from the blacklist. The remaining political prisoners must be released, civil war must end, and human rights abuses in the ethnic regions should be stopped,” he said.
“Moreover, action must be taken against those who have committed human rights abuses. Only after taking these steps can we safely say that we are close to genuine reform.”
Since taking office, Thein Sein has overseen a number of dramatic democratic changes, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but the government is believed to still be holding an unknown number of dissidents in jails around the country.
Similarly, the government has signed a number of peace agreements with ethnic groups living in the country’s remote border regions, but a continued military campaign against some groups such as the Kachin have left thousands displaced and streaming into neighboring nations to seek refuge.
Noe Noe Htet San, general secretary of the Burmese Women’s Union, noted that there were several mistakes on the list.
"Khin Ohnmar's name was mentioned twice, and others too. This list was compiled by [the government], and not based on information provided by us,” she told RFA after learning of her removal from the blacklist.
Khin Ohnmar is a human rights activist based along the Thai-Burma border.
She said that she and other activists had never wanted to leave the country in the first place, but that conditions made it impossible to continue their work.
“We only wanted to remain inside the country and work there. If there had been a possibility to work inside, we wouldn't have left in the beginning,” she said.
“We want to ask why people who were working towards democracy should have been put on a blacklist. We will have to wait to see if the conditions are right to work on democratization inside Burma."
Reported by Ingjin Naing and Moe Thu Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.