Burmese Refugees Question Myanmar's New Openness

Burmese Refugees Question Myanmar's New Openness

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SAN FRANCISCO -- In Myanmar, there is now a three-month wait for a hotel reservation. An hour-long flight from nearby Bangkok -- one of the few means of entering the country -- costs around $800. In the wake of recent elections, tourists are now flocking to this one-time global pariah.

But for members of the Bay Area Burmese Diaspora community, refugees mostly, recent signs of opening are being greeted with guarded optimism. Some question just how far the country’s ruling military regime is willing to go with its promise of reform.

“I am willing to go back and contribute what I have learned,” says Kyaw Oo, 37, who goes by the name Joe. A co-founder of the Burmese Youth Alliance, which works to foster greater unity among local Burmese, Oo says his community has “been waiting to see such change.”

Longtime political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi won a resounding victory in early April’s Parliamentary elections, only the third in half a century, with her National League for Democracy (NLD) capturing 40 of the 45 seats up for grabs. The number represents less than 5 percent of the 664 seats that still remain in the hands of the ruling military junta.

An article that appeared in the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma titled “The Cult of Aung San Suu Kyi,” warned, “On her ticket alone, [President] Thein Sein may help placate the masses against continuing human rights concerns.”

Still, Oo remains enthusiastic. A graduate of San Francisco State University, where he majored in Asian American Studies, Oo says memories of life under curfew and routine military checkpoints drove him out of the country. Given such images, he adds that long after his arrival in the United States in the late 1990s, he was “hesitant to admit” where he was from.

But with the recent election results and news the government has struck a peace deal with rebel forces from the Karen tribal group to the north, things have changed. These events, says Oo, have “energized” young Burmese American activists, who “want to participate in the changes” sweeping their homeland.

“We are a new generation,” he says. “We are hopeful.”

Of the half-million refugees that entered the United States this past decade, the State Department says some 60,000 come from Burma. In the Bay Area, the population is believed to be around 30,000. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain given that many Burmese from ethnic minority groups do not use first names and are hesitant to identify as Burmese.

Nyunt Than is chair of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance (BADA), headquartered in Palo Alto, 30 miles to the south of San Francisco. He says the reaction of his community to Suu Kyi’s victory varies from one ethnic group to another. “In general, nobody likes this dictatorship,” he explains. “[But] among minority groups, there is a deep distrust of [ethnic] Burmese.”

That distrust stems from an inter-ethnic conflict dating back to 1949, when the Karen National Liberation Army began fighting with the government for greater autonomy. Tens of thousands have fled to neighboring countries, including Thailand.

Aung Zaw, an editor with the Thai-based Irrawaddy newspaper, says despite the positive news coming out of Myanmar, “many oppressed ethnic groups, particularly Shan, Mon and Arakanese, will be wary about the government and its olive branch and will not easily trust them.”

Beyond concerns of ongoing ethnic strife, Than with BADA says he fears Suu Kyi’s victory could be a “wake up call” to hardliners from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), to which President Sein once belonged. The party was responsible for brutal crackdowns on protestors in 1989 and 2007, as well as a decision to turn down international aid following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed close to 140,000.

“These people are still there in the government,” says Than, “and their thinking is not likely to have changed much.”

That is why he says he does support the lifting of U.S.-imposed sanctions, though only gradually. Last week Secretary of State Clinton announced Washington would soon appoint an envoy to Myanmar and take steps to ease sanctions against the country.

“Suu Kyi has no leverage,” points out Than. “Sanctions are one source of leverage.”

Muang Latt agrees. A former member of the Burmese parliament and now vice president of BADA, Latt says the U.S. must take a “wait and see” approach, withholding further carrots until the regime demonstrates a commitment to “amending the 2008 constitution,” which guarantees the military a dominant position, and “national reconciliation.”

That test could come in 2015, when the country will hold elections for seats nationwide.

As to what prompted the government’s sudden shift, all agree China looms large.

“Burma is so important for China,” says Than. With booming coastal cities, Beijing – Myanmar’s largest trade partner -- is looking to develop its interior by gaining access to the Indian Ocean. Multi-billion dollar hydroelectric projects and oil pipelines, says Than, are all part of that larger aim.

The regime’s about face, says Than, is in part tied to efforts to balance against an overbearing Chinese presence by warming up to Washington. “Burma wants U.S. technology and military hardware.”

It also wants money, a fact that Than says opens up possibilities for overseas Burmese. “The middle class in Burma is gone,” he says, “while the rich have a lot of money and are looking for opportunities to connect.”

One possibility comes via the government’s newly introduced Social Visas, which allow Burmese abroad to return to the country for up to six months.

As for the tourists, perhaps another reason to visit the country – beyond the pagodas and natural beauty – is to catch a glimpse of its first all-female pop band, Me N Ma, which played to a packed house in the capital Nay Pyi Taw during last year’s Water Festival. In the audience was President Sein himself.

One of the group’s tracks, “Come Back Home,” is a direct plea for the thousands who fled to return to the land of their birth.

 

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