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Myanmar exiles test government's promise of change

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[March 26, 2012]  BANGKOK (AP) -- For years, Myanmar's former military regime regarded Aye Chan Naing as an enemy of the state, jailing 17 of his reporters and denouncing the exiled news organization he leads as a producer of "killer broadcasts" and a threat to national security.

But when he arrived back home for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, he was neither arrested nor harassed. Immigration police simply asked who he worked for, then smiled and waved him through.

The director of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, which has broadcast independent news for two decades into one of the world's most oppressed nations, is part of a trickle of exiles spanning the globe who have begun to see for themselves if the government's reforms are for real.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, needs its exiles back. Decades of harsh military dictatorship transformed one of Asia's most prosperous nations into one of its poorest. Many of the country's best and brightest fled, a brain drain that included doctors, engineers, politicians and journalists.

For now, the vast majority of those abroad are staying put. But Aye Chan's visit -- he made a five-day trip earlier this month after the government issued him a brief visa -- revealed something he found surprising among friends, family, even government officials -- a sliver of hope.

"It's something I haven't really seen in the last 20 years," Aye Chan said in a telephone interview from Oslo, where he has lived for two decades. "Of course there's still a lot of skepticism. People cannot forget the past."

But "there's been a clear change. People are speaking out freely, going to meet whoever they want without getting followed or arrested or punished for it," he said.

A nominally civilian government took office a year ago, and since then it has freed hundreds of political prisoners, lifted restrictions on opposition parties, signed truces with rebel groups and enacted other major reforms.

Last August, President Thein Sein issued a call for the diaspora to return. One of his top advisers later clarified that political dissidents could also come back, and would not be arrested if they did so.

But half a year later, "there is still no official policy, no government strategy to bring us home," said Aung Zaw, another prominent exile who founded the independent Thailand-based Irrawaddy newspaper. "They have no idea how to welcome exiles back."

Although international investors and foreign businessmen have begun rushing into Myanmar to take advantage of the rapidly changing climate there, and tourism numbers are on the rise, Aung Zaw estimated the number of exiles who've gone back so far at only "a few dozen" -- and most of those are only visiting.

"They need our skills and knowledge to rebuild, but they are giving no incentives or assurances," he added. "People aren't sure whether the doors are really open to them, and so nobody is comfortable enough to return home."

Aung Zaw fled Myanmar at the height of a mass student uprising that was brutally crushed by security forces in 1988. He returned home for the first time since then in February, and was on his second visit back last week.

He said the official reception he has received has been "very warm, which was quite a surprise."

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For the last two decades, he said, regime officials "rarely spoke to the public. There was silence all the time. But they have begun demonstrating they have the ability to listen, and that's refreshing."

Still, he said, "everyone remains very cautious, and skeptical of government. They've seen a lot of ups and downs over the last 20 or 30 years, and they know" the wave of recent, positive change can easily be reversed.

One thing the reforms have already given exiles is a look at the country they were compelled to leave long ago.

Aye Chan, the Democratic Voice of Burma director, said Yangon, the former capital, hasn't changed much since he left, despite some new hotels and roads. His high school is now closed and abandoned, swamped by weeds. Paint is peeling from dilapidated buildings all over the downtrodden city. And his old friends, he said, seemed poorer than ever. Even dentists -- like the one he wanted to be -- are struggling to survive.

"There are lots of places that look exactly like they did 23 years ago or more," Aye Chan said. "It's like time almost stopped in 1988."

Aye Chan went on to help found the DVB, which began broadcasting news on shortwave radio into Myanmar in 1992. Since then, the news group has expanded online and into television. During a 2007 uprising led by saffron-robed monks, its reporters were crucial in getting news out to the rest of the world. Some 17 of them were arrested, but all were released in January.

During his own trip back, Aye Chan met with government officials to request that his journalists be officially accredited. There were no definitive answers, but he said the meetings were positive.

"They want to discuss. They want to talk," he said of the government. "And we have more to gain than to lose by doing that."

Both Aung Zaw and Aye Chan both said they would like to move back to Myanmar one day, but the time is not yet right.

"Much more remains to be done," Aung Zaw said. "We will return to Burma when there is real security. When we can go back and have a dignified return."

[Associated Press; By TODD PITMAN]

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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