Burma’s President Thein Sein announced on Wednesday that his government will allow exiles to return home and will consider leniency with respect to offenses other than murder. The announcement, which further promotes the new government’s message that it has embarked on a political and economic reform process, was delivered in a major speech to local businessmen in Napyidaw on Wednesday.
“The President welcomes exiles from different organizations who have left Burma since 1988 to come back home, and leniency will be considered for those who have committed offenses,” said Khin Shwe, one of the 400 businessmen who attended the gathering.
Khin Shwe also quoted the president as saying that the government will cooperate together with returning exiles to work for the betterment of the country.
The announcement, however, provided no clear security guarantee for the thousands of political exiles who have fled Burma’s decades-long political oppression and now live outside the country.
In addition, the status of war refugees and former political prisoners living in refugee camps in Thailand remains uncertain.
Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy’s founder and editor who fled Burma as a political exile after the 1988 uprising, cautiously welcomed the announcement as a positive development, but said many exiles like him would remain doubtful of the government’s overtures until the political prisoners inside Burma are released and progress towards a peaceful resolution of the conflicts with ethnic armed groups is made.
“Exiles outside the country want to return home and contribute to their society, but it doesn't make sense that you keep thousands of people in jail while asking exiled Burmese to come home,” he said.
By contrast, Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese exile and one of the former leaders of the All Burma Students Democratic Front, an armed group founded by students who fled after the 1988 uprising, said that the new government, although formed by former military officials, have demonstrated a break from the past.
“It's good that the government has come up with such an important policy. Actual implementation may take a little longer. It's not an easy job with people trying to hold back possible reform initiatives,” Aung Naing Oo said.
“Exiles are encouraged to return because they will bring expertise, wealth, connections and other such things. If the policy is clearly directed at exiles then it is a form of reconciliation, although I am not sure every exile will go back immediately. For many people living overseas and members of the political opposition, there is still some distrust. Nonetheless, it is a very important step in the reconciliation process,” he said.
The latest move is seen by observers as part of the government’s increasing efforts to show the outside world that the nominally civilian government which took office in March has the will to make political and economic reforms, unlike the previous military regime which handed over power.
In the same speech, Thein Sein vowed that he will make economic reforms and tackle the country’s currency exchange crisis, which has seen the rapid fall of the US dollar against Burma’s local currency, the kyat, and damaged its export industry.
The latest developments came after two-closed door meetings between Aung San Suu Kyi and a government minister, during which their discussions reportedly included the release of political prisoners, the armed conflicts in the ethnic areas and the status of the NLD, which was officially dissolved last year for failing to register under the election laws.
There are reports of the government inviting Suu Kyi to an economic anti-poverty forum which is to be held this week, although her political colleagues have not been able to confirm this.
In a related move, the state-run media has stopped its daily publishing of slogans against the Western media such as the BBC and VOA.
Some observers link the government’s tentative reformist steps to the fact that in the coming months, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will make a final decision on whether to award Burma its 2014 chair, and the government may be using announcements such as the one made on Wednesday and the meetings with Suu Kyi to persuade Asean to act in its favor.