CHIANGRAI TIMES – Aung Naing Oo fled Myanmar more than two decades ago, trekking through dense tropical jungles to escape the country’s military regime. On Friday, he plans to return—the latest in a growing number of Myanmar exiles who are going back to their home country as it rekindles ties with the outside world.
Ruled for decades by a harsh military regime, Myanmar has undergone a series of changes over the past year. A new civilian government that took power after elections in 2010 has loosened Internet restrictions, freed political prisoners and pursued economic reforms to attract more foreign investors. The U.S. and other Western nations have indicated they may lift economic sanctions against the country if changes continue later this year.
A lesser-known—but important—reform involves the Myanmar government’s effort to lure back dissidents who abandoned the country over the past 25 years. Their departure to escape persecution by the military resulted in a massive drain that deprived Myanmar of some of its best minds.
Now, the government wants some of them back. Although it hasn’t spelled out its intentions in detail, analysts believe officials want to show they are serious about reform, and want to benefit from the exiles’ years of study and work abroad. After years of isolation, Myanmar is among the poorest nations in Asia, and securing the help of some of its exiles—whose numbers are estimated in the tens of thousands—could help to turn that around. For the government, the return of exiles might also be seen as an endorsement of its reforms.
Most Myanmar exiles have remained wary of the government’s overtures, refusing to head back until they’re confident authorities are serious about reform and wouldn’t just throw them in jail. But as changes snowball, some are growing more comfortable about taking the plunge.
Among them: Aung Zaw, the editor of a Thailand-based news publication, the Irrawaddy, who is known for his scathing editorials about the country’s former military regime.
Mr. Aung Zaw went to Yangon this week for the first time since September 1988 on a five-day, government-approved visa after reaching out to officials about making a brief return.
In his younger days as a student activist who protested the government, he was thrown in prison and tortured before he escaped on foot to Thailand and started the Irrawaddy.
But he was treated well by officials on his latest trip, he said, with authorities welcoming him to the capital of Naypyitaw for cordial multihour meetings.
“I’m happy to be back here,” he said by phone late Thursday after also catching up with friends and opposition leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who advised him to keep working for change, he said. He said he found residents to be relaxed and hopeful, but still somewhat skeptical about some of the latest changes. “I don’t think anyone is expecting any immediate miracles after 20 or 30 years” of military rule, he said, adding “I don’t know the future yet.”
Other prominent exiles that have gone recently include academics and activists based in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Some other activists are also heading out of Myanmar for the first time, confident the government won’t block their return. In past years, activists who remained in-country—including Ms. Suu Kyi—were afraid to leave because they didn’t know if they’d be allowed back home again. Ms. Suu Kyi famously declined to leave in 1999 when her husband, Michael Aris, was dying of cancer in London, and she was unable to be with him when he died.
Now some prominent dissidents are going in and out of the country repeatedly, including Zarganar, a prominent comedian who goes by one name. After his release from several years of house arrest late last year, he left Myanmar for the first time to visit Bangkok, followed by a trip to the U.S. On Wednesday, he was among a group of Myanmar dissidents who met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington.
Mr. Aung Naing Oo, who goes to Myanmar Friday, is one of the better-known Thailand-based exiles who have made plans to return. A former student activist, he participated in pro-democracy protests in Yangon in 1988 that were brutally crushed by Myanmar’s military, leaving more than 3,000 people dead.
He hid out in Myanmar’s ethnic Karen state, near the Thai border. After a couple of years in the jungle, he moved on to Thailand, where he was involved in exile political circles in Bangkok. He didn’t make contact with his parents for nearly a decade.
He traveled to the U.S. and Europe, married a Scottish aid worker, and got a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard. Then, in 2000, he moved to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, where he later co-founded a nonprofit think tank called the Vahu Development Institute that studies Myanmar reforms and trains civil-society leaders, including many from Myanmar.
A year or so ago, he said, it started to become clearer that Myanmar was changing. The military junta held its first election in 20 years in late 2010, and while the politicians that won were for the most part linked to the military, they began implementing reforms to open more public debate and re-engage with the Western world.
“We knew change was coming, but no one could predict the change would be this quick,” he said.
In August, the government announced it wanted exiles to return—a move promoted as part of a wider effort to bring reconciliation to the country. Although it included no guarantees of security for dissidents, as reforms gained momentum more of Mr. Aung Naing Oo’s friends started going back, in some cases to advise the government. “The government is overwhelmed with all the changes” and needs help, he said.
Mr. Aung Naing Oo and his colleagues reached out to officials, including a government minister, about the possibility of coming back. The government agreed to give him a one-time, month long entry permit. He’ll be traveling with three other colleagues from Vahu.
He said he believes there are still divisions within the Myanmar government, with some officials who want to slow down reforms. But he thinks there has been enough change in Myanmar that he can trust the government not to toss him in prison. “Otherwise I wouldn’t dream about going back,” he said.
After arriving Friday morning, he said he’ll be met by colleagues and his parents, who also visited him in Thailand recently. He said he hopes to meet with government officials and civil society leaders.
He is also hoping to determine if it is possible to move back permanently, possibly in a year or two. He said he has heard home prices in Myanmar have become “like Hollywood: through the roof” since the country’s political opening began.
“I’m excited, but there’s also fear,” he said. “Most of us have been quite settled in Thailand, for 24 years. None of us are rich, but we live all right, away from hassles. And it’s easy to criticize whoever is not doing right in our eyes from afar.”
—Celine Fernandez contributed to this article.
Write to Patrick Barta at [email protected]