Tue 28 Aug 2012
Filed under: Inside Burma,News
Myanmar’s government said it is removing more than 2,000 names from an infamous blacklist that has blocked dissidents and some journalists from entering the country, but many well-known dissidents insist they are still blocked from visiting the country.
The move—which was announced in a three-paragraph article on the last page of Tuesday’s New Light of Myanmar, a government mouthpiece—is in line with Naypyitaw’s desire to lure more exiles home to bring more foreign-trained expertise back to the country after decades of military rule. It also came a day after Naypyitaw announced a shake-up of the government’s cabinet, boosting the authority of leaders believed to endorse more reform.
President Thein Sein had earlier called for exiles to return so they could participate in the country’s reform process. But many dissidents remained wary in part because they weren’t sure about the durability of the latest political changes, and some feared they could be detained or punished if they turned out to be on the blacklist, whose contents have been a secret.
Indeed, Myanmar authorities in the past have avoided publicly acknowledging the list’s existence, and its contents have long been a subject of intense debate and gossip, with many dissidents never sure whether they were on or off of it.
Some exiles say they were able to confirm they were on the list through back-channel discussions with Myanmar diplomats or senior officials in Naypyitaw, while others just assumed they were blacklisted because of their past participation in political protests or after being rejected for visas when applying at embassies around the world.
Among those famously blacklisted, according to the Associated Press, was actor Michelle Yeoh, who played pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the film “The Lady,” which was released last year. Ms. Yeoh met Suu Kyi on an initial visit but was deported upon arrival when she visited Myanmar—which is also known as Burma—a second time in June 2011, and was informed she was blacklisted, the AP said.
Although the removal of more than 2,000 names marks a notable relaxation of government controls in the country, which has also loosened restrictions on the press, the Internet and public protests this year, it also serves as a reminder of how far Myanmar must go before its political climate is as free as many other countries.
Tuesday’s announcement in the New Light of Myanmar said the blacklist contained a total of 6,165 people, meaning roughly 4,000 people are still technically banned from entering Myanmar for reasons that remain unclear. Their identities are also a mystery, as are the identities of those who are now officially permitted to return. The government said only that 2,082 people were removed from the blacklist “after scrutinizing them in conformity with the current policies.”
It noted that “companies and persons from all fields including media men were blacklisted and banned by the government in the national interest” in the past, but now it was time to allow some back in “in accord with the reforming system.”
Efforts to reach government officials to provide more details about Tuesday’s announcement were unsuccessful.
Several exiles contacted by The Wall Street Journal said they remained on the blacklist, as far as they know. Maung Zarni, a longtime critic of the government and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, said he was “sure” he was still on it. Mr. Maung Zarni said he had been informed by a senior government official that if he wanted to see his mother in Mandalay, a retired historian who is in her late 70s and has suffered a stroke, he would have to write a letter of appeal to Mr. Thein Sein and sign a statement declaring he would not participate in any political activities. Even then there was no guarantee of a safe passage home, he said.
“This is a PR move—just like the way they release dissidents” from prison while also keeping some behind bars, he said. It wasn’t immediately possible to independently confirm his account.
Aung Zaw, the editor of a well-known Myanmar news publication in Thailand called the Irrawaddy, said he was told recently by immigration officials that he remains on the blacklist, though he has been allowed to travel to the country this year, including a trip in February that was his first to Yangon since September 1988. He is known for writing tough editorials in the past criticizing the country’s former military regime, which handed power to the current reformist, nominally-civilian government, last year.
Aung Naing Oo, a Thailand-based political analyst who follows Myanmar, said he assumes he has been removed from the list, as he has been shuttling back and forth to the country this year after staying away for years because of his past as a student activist, which included participating in 1988 protests that were crushed by the former military regime. He, like many other former student activists, is encouraged by the recent reforms in Myanmar, and some are helping advise Naypyitaw on how to manage the rapid changes in the country.
But Soe Aung, a Thailand-based Myanmar expert at the Forum for Democracy in Burma, said he doesn’t know if he is one of the 2,082 people dropped from the list, which he says he is “100% sure” he was on in the past.
“There is no clear indication how you can find out,” he said. “This is another attempt to avoid declaring a general amnesty as any democratic government would do when they come to power,” he said.
—Celine Fernandez contributed to this article.