For more than two decades, they were symbols of defiance against Myanmar’s military dictatorship, campaigning tirelessly in foreign countries for regime change. Now that the government is earning plaudits for its program of reforms, though, hundreds of Burmese dissidents living abroad may need career counseling.
“It’s becoming difficult to find things to complain about,” said Aung Naing Oo, deputy director of the Vahu Development Institute, an organization in Thailand formed by Burmese student activists who fled Myanmar in the late 1980s.
Such exiles, as they are known, have watched from afar as Myanmar has released hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed media censorship and allowed the icon of Burmese democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, to begin campaigning for elected office.
“Things are moving on the inside,” said Aung Naing Oo, who returned to Myanmar early this month. “Everyone is basically hoping that they can go back.”
Over the years of Myanmar’s isolation, Burmese exiles were important liaisons between the country and the outside world. They persuaded Western governments to impose sanctions on the military regime and published opinionated but often valuable news and intelligence gleaned from sources inside Myanmar.
A diplomatic cable written in 2008 by a US diplomat in Bangkok estimated that there were 200 Burmese exile organizations in Thailand alone.
However, the global Burmese-dissident business may soon be out of business. Money for policy seminars is drying up, and foreign diplomats would now rather fly to Myanmar than have lunch with exiled dissidents, as former US President George W. Bush did during a visit to Thailand in 2008.
If the changes in Myanmar have surprised many observers of the country, they have been particularly disorienting for exile groups, many of which are based in Mae Sot, a Thai city on the Myanmar border.
“I’ve spent half of my life with the revolution,” said Myat Thu, a former student activist who came to Thailand more than two decades ago.
He lit a cigarette and recounted his escape through the jungles of eastern Myanmar after the military quashed a popular uprising in 1988.
He and his Thai wife, Khemitsara Ekkanasingha, run a cafe adorned with “Free Burma” stickers and pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Khemitsara began a campaign last year for the release of 200 female political prisoners in Myanmar, printing postcards and organizing marches and vigils. Now, all 200 women have been released, and she is thinking about other causes to champion, perhaps related to global economic inequality.
“We are going to put up a new banner,” she said, pointing to the wall. “Stop the dictatorship of capitalism!”
Other dissidents here say they want to continue working on Myanmar-related issues, partly out of lingering mistrust of the government, but they are not sure how long they can stay in exile.
Naing Aung, a former student activist, helps run the Forum for Democracy in Burma, a group partly financed by the US that has held seminars on democracy and human rights. Raising money for such projects has become difficult, he said.
“Donors are saying: ‘If you are just doing seminars in Thailand and printing publications, we won’t finance you,’” he said.
Life is comfortable for many dissidents living in Thailand, Naing Aung said, and it is difficult for them to imagine leaving.
“People have children and mortgages,” he said.
The Burmese diaspora is wide. The northern Thai city of Chiang Mai is home to many dissident organizations; others are in London, Washington or New Delhi. The Democratic Voice of Burma, which was instrumental in disseminating images of the 2007 military crackdown in Myanmar, is based in Norway.
Formerly, journalists caught in Myanmar working undercover for the Democratic Voice group were imprisoned. Now, Aye Chan Naing, the organization’s executive director and chief editor, says he is negotiating with the government about opening an official branch office inside the country.
“I think, within one or two years, if things keep moving in this direction, a lot of dissidents will move back, and the funding will dry up,” he said. “Some groups have been warned that this is their last year of funding.”
Burmese President Thein Sein and his government have been trying to lure exiles back. Aung Min, a government minister, went to Thailand this month to woo dissidents, according to Aye Chan Naing, who met with him.
“Ultimately, if you’re an activist, you want to be where the action is,” said Aung Naing Oo of the Vahu Development Institute, based in Chiang Mai. “If that action is not where you are, you have to move.”
However, a number of dissidents say they are unpersuaded by the changes and are not considering returning home.
“I don’t believe,” said U Bo Kyi, the co-founder of an association based in Mae Sot that keeps a database of political prisoners.
Bo Kyi, who fled Myanmar 13 years ago, says he is waiting for Myanmar’s leaders — many of whom were top generals during the days of military rule — to acknowledge and make amends for imprisonments, torture and many other abuses.
“We do not want revenge,” he said. “But we need recognition and reparations by the government.”
He is, above all, looking for an apology.
“Confession is very important for national reconciliation,” he said.
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