Bangkok, Thailand – After announcing what observers describe as a reform-oriented cabinet reshuffle on Monday, Myanmar’s government lifted a ban on more than 2,000 blacklisted exiled dissidents today.
However, fresh fighting was reported Monday between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army in war-torn Kachin state, a resource-rich and mainly Christian-populated region in the north of Buddhist-majority Myanmar (Burma), adding an estimated 6,000 people to the some 75,000 already displaced by fighting since June 2011.
The removal of the names from the blacklist and the changes in cabinet have been welcomed as signs of more reform in Myanmar, now almost 18 months into a reform process under a nominally civilian government. However, fighting in remote ethnic minority borderlands and a lack of clarity about the blacklist relaxation makes some unsure about the overall direction of reforms.
“It is encouraging to learn some names are removed, but there needs to be transparency, to know whose names are on the list, whose names are being removed,” says Cheery Zahau, a human rights activist from Chin state in Myanmar’s west.
More than 4,083 people are still blacklisted, according to the state newspaper The New Light of Myanmar, and there is not yet a published list of names of those who can return to Myanmar and those who are still barred.
Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, has beckoned Myanmar exiles and economic migrants to return home, citing not only political reforms such as the freeing of political prisoners, but the need to reverse a debilitating brain drain in the long isolated country, which is among the poorest in Asia.
Ms. Zahau, a Christian Chin who lives in exile in Thailand along with more than 140,000 Myanmar war refugees and some 3 million migrant workers, says she hopes to return to her homeland.
“We all want to contribute back to our communities if the government’s reforms allow us to do so,” she says.
Myanmar has not held a census since 1983, but estimates put the country’s demographics at around 60 percent ethnic Burman, with the remainder divided between dozens of ethnic groups.
In another seeming contrast between top-level government reforms on one hand and continuing opaque rule of law on the other, the same day that nine changes to Myanmar’s cabinet were announced, Myanmar’s courts gave three Burmese United Nations workers jail sentences for their alleged role in June violence in western Rakhine state between local Buddhists and Muslims, which left around 100,000 people homeless.
According to a statement on Mr. Thein Sein’s website late Tuesday, the three have been given presidential pardons, though it was not yet clear if they had been freed.
On Monday, UN spokesperson in Myanmar Aye Win said the UN was not informed of the trial in advance and the accused were refused lawyers. “Well, we haven’t had access to these staff members,” he said.
While fighting continues in the Kachin state close to the Myanmar-China border, a tentative peace holds in the Karen state region between Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, and the border with northwest Thailand.
After the government unilaterally called off a scheduled third round of peace negotiations with the Karen National Union (KNU), which has fought the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army, since the late 1940s, the KNU today said that the talks would take place on Sept. 3, focusing on the relocation of Myanmar soldiers from the Karen region.
Khu Khu Ju of the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) says that for Karen people “the cease-fire has made some improvements to their daily lives,” but adds that abuses such as forced labor, though decreasing, still occur.
According to a May 31 KHRG report, “villagers have been able once again to farm their land, because after the cease-fire negotiations began between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Myanmar government, the Tatmadaw soldiers have had to observe a limited area of operation.”