There can be no doubt that Myanmar is currently undergoing an important political transition. In most cases where such a political transition occurs, it is accompanied by a significant process of “national reconciliation”, especially where politics have been profoundly divided and polarised in the past. A genuine process of “national reconciliation” is now happening for the first time in Myanmar in at least 20 years, targeting different segments of the population. The collective efforts of all Burmese, at home and abroad, and their supporters, are being encouraged in this process of national reconciliation, and their contributions have the potential to generate vital practical benefits for the people of Myanmar in a relatively short space of time. The process also has implications for the international community.

The idea of using national reconciliation to help achieve this goal of bringing practical benefits is much more than a romantic or sentimental goal. Politically, as well as practically, it could be an absolutely essential step if efforts towards reform are to succeed and be sustained. There is a substantial, but regrettably still incomplete, consensus about working towards a collective contribution to this national reconciliation. Many examples can be found of the concrete benefits that might help the process of transformation that everyone aspires to.

There is ample evidence that Myanmar’s current transition depends critically on the human talents available to devise and implement the change programs the Myanmar Government has adopted. It is not hard to see why this should be so, when account is taken of the fifty years of enforced isolation and conformity under Ne Win (1962-88) and the State Peace and Development Council (1988-2011), which essentially left Myanmar behind even its small ASEAN neighbours Laos and Cambodia in some aspects of socio-economic development. Myanmar’s leaders on all sides have publicly acknowledged their worries about the current capacity building deficit. Aid donors are concerned about Myanmar’s ability to absorb the increased levels of aid that are already being foreshadowed.

One way to overcome the large gap in human resource capacity is for overseas Burmese to return to help achieve changes, as happened in other ASEAN countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. By and large, there are no longer compelling reasons for Burmese living overseas to fear going “home”, and some high-profile Burmese have already done so.

Note: This New Mandala post is based on a presentation to the Burma Medical Association (Australia) “Building Bridges” Seminar for “Strengthening Collaboration and Building the Collective Contribution of Overseas Burmese Health Professionals to Maternal & Child Health in Myanmar/Burma”, 10-11 April 2012, Sydney.

The challenge of national reconciliation

“National reconciliation” can be defined as a process that involves all the different groups that make up a “nation” wherever they are located, and whatever ethnic, socio-economic and political position they occupy. Focusing on matters of national purpose and a national agenda can help mobilise support for the process, thereby strengthening it. Of course, this is a “political” statement, although it is arguably something on which a strong and resilient consensus among all groups is achievable.

In Myanmar, national reconciliation is a “home-grown” product; it is not being facilitated or imposed from outside; while the United Nations is supportive, it does not play a direct role; the burden of responsibility falls directly on national political leaders. So it is no surprise that Myanmar’s current political leaders views on “reconciliation” are almost identical. Their views include the following statements:

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi:

тАв Myanmar needs: “a more inclusive political process” to achieve national reconciliation which is something that is “in everybody’s interests”

тАв A genuine political dialogue with all ethnic groups is essential for national reconciliation.

President Thein Sein:

тАв “Releasing prisoners of conscience is an important step for advancing national reconciliation” (March 2012)

тАв “Confidence is very important for national reconciliation in our country.”

тАв “The expectation of ethnic groups is to get equal rights for all. Equal standards are also the wish of our government”

тАв “Ceasefires are needed on both sides first for political dialogue… We all have to work so our ethnic youths who held guns stand tall holding laptops.”

The August 2011 meeting between President Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in itself was an important step for national reconciliation. “We should all work together,” Ko Ko Hlaing, Political Advisor to President Thein Sein, said after the meeting.

The new Myanmar Government seems to be slowly making progress in its negotiations with ethnic groups, and most recently representatives from the Karen national Union and the government (and, separately, Aung San Suu Kyi) met again, inside Myanmar. Realistically, such negotiations and such reconciliation will take some time; it will not happen overnight, or just through a piece of paper. Mutual trust is essential, and for the first time in many years, we are seeing signs of growing trust.

Also needed are satisfactory arrangements to bring home displaced people along the border of Myanmar and at present located in Thailand. Some attempts to return these people were made in the past, but did not work. These people cannot be abandoned, but their trust in the authorities (Myanmar and Thai) needs to be restored. It should be possible to do this successfully. Remember the example of thousands of cross-border returnees in the cases of Cambodia (370,000 people) and later in Laos.

Political Leaders’ Messages to the Burmese diaspora

On 17 August 2011 President Thein Sein for the first time issued a public invitation to the Burmese diaspora to return to Myanmar to contribute to national building. He said:

тАв Any individuals and organizations in the nation that have different views from the government should not take account of disagreements and we invite them to work with us for common goals in the national interests. We will make reviews to make sure that Myanmar citizens living abroad for some reasons can return home if they have not committed any crimes.

тАв The targets, he said are: “Everyone who is honest and good-hearted loves their homeland. They want their country to enjoy prosperity and to live in amity and unity. And they have strong attachment to their country and own people, and build a peaceful and prosperous society. That is our common ground. I would like to urge all to work hard together based on the common ground in order that our country will be able to stand tall as a peaceful and modern one in the international community.”

For the first time the new Myanmar Government has followed up by sending Railway Minister Aung Min (the government’s chief negotiator with ethnic communities inside Myanmar) to Bangkok to meet exile groups in February 2012. There are already some examples or high-profile overseas Burmese who have returned to make their contributions include: Zaw Oo, former Director of Burma Fund, Washington; Dr Thant Myint-U, formerly based in New York, now resident in Bangkok, but working as a Director of the LIFT multi-donor assistance program and spending long periods in Myanmar.

тАв Other examples include visits to Myanmar for the first time by the prominent exile media leaders Aung Zaw from The Irrawaddy, Aye Chan Naing from Democratic Voice of Burma (whose exile publications were formerly banned!); it seems that some of these journalist/proprietors (such as Democratic Voice of Burma – based in Thailand and Norway, and Mizzima News – based in India) will be making their contributions by setting up in-country publications.

Aung San Suu Kyi has also publicly supported the idea of exiles returning to make such a contribution to the task on national building. In an important message to the April 2012 Burma Medical Association (Australia) seminar in Sydney, she asked BMAA members to “help in any way they could”. She did not impose any restrictions on this. She did not mention “sanctions”. This has always been her policy, but she is now indicating that she believes that the time and circumstances have come when it is possible.

Why is there an important role the Burmese diaspora?

It is natural in a home-grown reconciliation process, that voluntary contributions should be sought from all those who would like to assist the process of re-building the nation. There could be as many as three million Burmese living overseas at the moment, perhaps more. (This is half the population of Laos.) They have enormous talents and skills that they can contribute, many of which are missing or under-developed in Myanmar today.

Even in Australia there are now probably 26,000-30,000 people who were “born in Burma”. In recent years, this has been one of the fastest growing Asian communities in Australia, due to the numbers coming under humanitarian resettlement (especially Karen and Rohingya). The 2006 Australian census – recorded approx 13,000 “born in Burma” (Note: Australia’s 2011 Census data are not yet released). However, Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship data shows that between the 2006 Census, and 31 December 2010, there were 8,847 permanent arrivals from Burma. In other words, the Burmese community in Australia increased by 42 per cent in just over four years (2006-10). According to additional Department of Immigration and Citizenship data, arrivals from Burma in 2010-11 were 4,000 (c.f. Lao 2,000; Cambodia 8,000; Vietnam 54,000).

Finding the best contribution from overseas

What kind of contributions by exiles from Burma might be valued in Myanmar? Sectors such as:

тАв Financial system regulation and management;

тАв Judicial system: prosecutors, judges/magistrates, court officers;

тАв Setting up a proper national environmental protection framework and regulations;

тАв Social workers and counselling services, but there are many, many others.

In medicine, speakers at the Sydney seminar suggested many practical ideas, such as a establishing an integrated emergency management system, and a national pathology and diagnostic services regime. The other important area, which needs to be assigned higher priority, is mental health, something that truly values individual human rights, and where a number of overseas Burmese hold qualifications.

Delivering strengthening programs effectively

Strengthening institutions that are reforming, and building under-developed human resources capacities are not only badly needed, but are also vital ways of trying to ensure that reforms in Myanmar cannot be reversed. It may be important to strengthen both the government and non-government sectors. So international and national (Myanmar) Non-Government Organisations obviously have an important role in implementing such programs effectively and ethically on the ground in Myanmar. INGO’s will need reliable and dedicated partners from Myanmar’s growing NGO community; the Myanmar Medical Association, for example, is already known and respected by Australian NGOs.

One can envisage a pattern of triangular collaboration, with donors and sources of expertise pairing up with recipient organisations, often with the inter-mediation of a facilitator or catalyst. The ANU is trying to act as a catalyst in this way, encouraging its outstanding scholars to travel to Myanmar for educational and practical academic purposes and seeking ways to invite Myanmar scholars to Canberra.

The Australian Government has now introduced a special visa for “refugees” who have not taken out Australian citizenship but who wish to return temporarily to their country of birth. The “Resident Return Visa” – is a permanent visa for current or former Australian permanent residents. According to the official explanation, “This visa allows you to leave and enter Australia as often as you want, within the validity period of the visa, while maintaining your status as a permanent resident.” In 2010 Department of Immigration & Citizenship data on permanent returnees did not mention Burma, even though figures under 10 were included. (Highest number of returnees were from the UK, New Zealand and China; after that Vietnam was only 1,300; and Cambodians 169, of whom 115 had been in Australia more than 5 years.) It should be possible to put “Myanmar/Burma” on the map here as well in the future.

Concluding remarks

The fact that the Burma Medical Association, Australia, could host such an ambitious, wide-ranging and enthusiastically supported global seminar, is strong evidence for the case that the collective efforts of all Burmese, at home and abroad, and their supporters, can be part of this process of national reconciliation. It also demonstrates some of the specific potential for generating untold practical benefits for the people of Myanmar in a relatively short space of time. The seminar was impressive as a brilliant model which other groups inside and outside Myanmar could follow.

Trevor Wilson is Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. He is a former Australian Ambassador to Myanmar.