An Exile Returns
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Harn Yawnghwe, the executive director of the Brussels-based Euro-Burma Office (EBO) and one of
Burma's most prominent exiles, recently ended his first visit to his native country in nearly half a century.
The experience was, he said, eye-opening: Contrary to the misgivings that many exiles still have about
recent moves toward political reform in Burma, most people he spoke to in the country said they were
overwhelmingly positive about the situation developing under President Thein Sein's administration.
In this extensive interview, Harn Yawnghwe describes some of his encounters with government officials,
political leaders and others he met during his stay in Burma and explains his own positions on a range of
issues. He also discusses the role of the EBO in last year's election, and his relationship with Myanmar
Egress, a “civil society group” with close ties to the Burmese government.
Question: Although your recent trip to Burma was your first to the country
in nearly 50 years, you have spent most of your life closely observing
developments there. Were you surprised at all by anything that you saw
during your visit, or were conditions more or less what you expected them
Answer: I found the political atmosphere more optimistic and open than I
had expected. People—politicians and the man on the street—seem to be
less fearful. In one instance, a hotel receptionist even refused to disclose
my room number to a Special Branch operative, saying she did not have
the right to disclose such information. This would have been unimaginable
in the old days. I was also surprised that although Special Branch followed
me around in Rangoon, they were nowhere to be seen in Shan State. I had
Harn Yawnghwe. (Photo: Shan expected the opposite.
Herald Agency for News)
Q: Shortly after your trip, you told the Shan Herald Agency for News
(SHAN) that your only plans were to visit your hometown in Shan State and Rangoon, but you ended up
meeting a number of high-ranking government officials and representatives of a dozen political parties. Did
you organize any of these meetings in advance, or did people seek you out after they learned you were in the
A: As I said in the statement about my visit, I was willing to meet with anybody who wanted to meet me. But
I did not organize anything in advance because I did not know what to expect. I had no idea if people would
be afraid to meet me or if I would be able to move around freely. People sought me out after they learned
that I was in the country, despite the fact that I was openly followed by Special Branch operatives.
Q: Before you traveled to Rangoon, you met with senior Burmese government officials and members of
Myanmar Egress, an NGO with close ties to the government, in Bangkok. What did you discuss there? Did
Myanmar Egress arrange your trip?
A: Myanmar Egress members introduced me to the senior government officials. The officials wanted to
verify who I was. In the past, there had been much confusion as to who and what role was played by myself
and my two older brothers—Tiger Yawnghwe, who declared independence for Shan State in 2005, and Chao
Tzang Yawnghwe, who served in the Shan State Army and died in 2004. They also wanted to know my
opinion about the government’s peace talk offer with the ethnic armed groups. I said that the problem is
longstanding and that it would take a lot of effort to resolve. Confidence-building measures are needed to
build up trust and understanding on both sides. However, it could be done if the government has the political
will to solve the problem in a just and equitable way.
No, Myanmar Egress did not arrange my trip. Neither did the government. Since it was a private trip, I made
my own arrangements via the Internet, a travel agent and personal friends. It may have seemed that
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everything was prearranged by Myanmar Egress because they broke the story of my visit. What actually
happened was that my flight landed just before the Thai Airways flight. Journalists were waiting at the
airport for Korean film stars arriving by Thai for the Korean Film Festival in Rangoon.
As I entered the arrivals hall, I was recognized by a journalist from the Yangon Times. He started taking
photographs and interviewed me as I was leaving the airport. Other journalists joined in and the news of my
arrival spread. The Voice, linked to Myanmar Egress, managed to get the news out immediately on Facebook
while the print weeklies did not report my arrival until the following week. Like my Irrawaddy interview, my
other interviews with True News and the Financial Times were conducted before I got my visa. They just
happened to be published when I was in Rangoon.
Q: The SHAN article gives the impression that almost all of your contacts in Burma were overwhelmingly
positive about recent developments. Only one person cited in the article, an associate of Aung San Suu Suu
Kyi, seemed to express any real skepticism about President Thein Sein's intentions. Did you meet anyone else
who seemed to have doubts?
A: The article inadvertently gave the wrong impression. The person referred to was initially doubtful but he
was also positive when I met him. People I met did not doubt President Thein Sein’s intentions. What they
were concerned about was the government’s ability to deliver given the inertia and the lack of initiative by
the bureaucracy. The old machinery is still functioning under old rules, while the upper echelons seem to
want to change. For example, while the president announced that exiles could return, the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs still has not issued a Standard Operating Procedure for embassies on how to deal with exiles wanting
to return. Doubt was expressed by some ethnic people about the government’s peace initiative since the
fighting was intensifying in Kachin State. Other than that, I did not meet anyone who had doubts.
Q: Anyone visiting Burma a little more than a year ago would have heard a great deal of skepticism about
the election and the country's political direction. Why do you think the tone has changed so decisively since
then? Do you think the average “man in the street” really feels that things have changed that much?
A: There was a lot of skepticism about the elections and the new government up until the end of July this
year. I was skeptical too and surprised by the President’s inaugural speech [in March]. The Euro-Burma
Office even published an analysis of it. But things seemed to be on hold. Then suddenly in August
everything started to move forward—the president met with Aung San Suu Kyi; she responded positively; he
said exiles could come back; the government announced peace talks with the ethnic armed groups; the
president reversed the decision about the Myitsone dam; proceedings of parliamentary debates were
published and the range of topics discussed was very broad and included sensitive topics like peace talks,
national reconciliation, amnesty, release of political prisoners, censorship, and even the nuclear program—
topics that would have been out of bounds under previous regimes; a Human Rights Commission was
formed; a new labor law allowing trade unions was passed and political prisoners were released. I cannot
speak for the average “man on the street.” But the people I met did feel that things have changed.
Q: one shopkeeper you spoke to suggested that your presence in the country after so many years was itself a
sign that the situation in Burma is improving. Do you think that that might have been the point of inviting
you—to make people think that things are really changing?
A: It may have been. But the fact that I was able to visit does represent a real change. When it was clear by
1999 that we could not bring about change by depending on pressure from the international community, I
met with Dr Kyaw Win (Burma's former ambassador to Canada and later the UK) with the agreement of
Aung San Suu Kyi and Dr Sein Win, to discuss common concerns and proposed that a dialogue between the
government and Aung San Suu Kyi would be useful. He arranged for me to meet with Foreign Minister U
Win Aung in New York at the UN, who agreed to arrange for me to visit Burma and persuade Aung San
Suu Kyi to enter into a dialogue with the government. All arrangements were derailed when Burmese
students seized the embassy in Bangkok. From 2000 to 2003, I briefed UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail,
while he tried to mediate the dialogue between Aung San Suu Kyi and the government. After the talks broke
down and Gen Khin Nyunt was arrested in 2004, I was interviewed by the BBC Burmese Service on how we
could change the situation in Burma. I replied that the Tatmadaw had to lead the change. The Defense
Ministry sent an emissary to ask me to clarify my position.
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I said that since they held the power, they had to implement the change. I was asked whether I would return
to explain how and help with a transition. I agreed but nothing came of the arrangement. The final green light
from the top did not come. So the fact that I was allowed in this time does indicate that things are really
Q: During your visit, you met with leaders from the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), which ran
in last year's election, and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which boycotted the
election. Did these two parties differ in their view of developments since last year, when the Union Solidarity
and Development Party (USDP), led by Thein Sein, became the ruling party?
A: The SNDP person I spoke with said that unlike the situation in the past, the USDP recruited community
leaders in Shan State to represent the party. The state government is also a coalition government including
the SNDP and other parties. Therefore, the state government is more cohesive and is better able to represent
the interests of Shan State. The SNLD people I met were in Rangoon and included the wife of Chairman
Hkun Htun Oo and the wife of General Secretary Sai Nyunt Lwin, [both of whom are in prison]. We
discussed the prospects for their release and the current political situation. Although the SNLD and the
SNDP are different parties, they come from the same roots and have similar aspirations.
Q: There is still fighting some parts of Shan State, between government forces and the Shan State Army. Did
anyone you met in Shan State express any concern about this, or were they more focused on what was going
on in Naypyidaw?
A: People were of course concerned, but they do not feel that they can influence either the Tatmadaw or the
Shan State Army. They, therefore, tend to focus on the area in which they feel they can have an impact. The
people I met were quite satisfied with the way the new Shan State government was conducting itself.
Naypyidaw was a secondary issue to them.
Q: The basic message that you came away with seems to be that recent reforms are real but fragile, and that
the opposition and exiles should therefore try to encourage further change. What kind of support do you
think should be given?
A: We should encourage building up and improving the capacity of democratic institutions. The president
says he is accountable to the Constitution. We should encourage him to really discharge his duties according
to the Constitution. It is the practice of the rule of law which is very different from the often arbitrary rule of
a military dictator. We should also encourage the elected representatives to be accountable to the people who
elected them by introducing laws that will benefit their electorate. If we want a sustainable democracy,
political parties need to be democratic in both their structure and policies. We should help them improve
their capacity to develop policies, draft legislation and present their vision to the general populace. Civil
servants also need to be trained to become more professional in discharging their duties in serving the public,
instead of bending to the whims of an autocratic leader. In other words, instead of waiting for the system to
become democratic, we should make use of whatever opportunities present themselves to promote
democratic ideals and practices within the government so that they become institutionalized.
Q: Why were you unable to meet Aung San Suu Kyi during your visit? If you had been able to meet, what
would you have liked to say to her?
A: My first full day in Rangoon was a Friday, which I spent sightseeing and reorienting myself. It was
suggested to me that day that I should meet Aung San Suu Kyi. I agreed and asked that a meeting be set up. I
was later informed that Aung San Suu Kyi did not meet anyone except family and close friends on the
weekend but that she would meet me on Wednesday or Thursday when I came back from Shan State. It did
not work out on Wednesday, as that was when Derek Mitchell, the US envoy, was visiting. Then on
Thursday, I had already arranged meetings with the other parties and Aung San Suu Kyi also had an internal
meeting with the NLD. I left on Friday morning. I would have liked to exchange views with her on the
current situation and how she thought democracy could be promoted.
Q: We heard that some activists inside Burma did not want to meet with you.
Would you care to comment on that? Can you tell us who you did meet while you were in Burma?
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A: I had no prior plans to meet anyone. Therefore, I would not have known if some activists and politicians
did not want to meet me. I met with the National League for Democracy, Shan Nationalities League for
Democracy, Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, Rakhine National Democratic Party, All Mon Regions
Democratic Party, Chin National Party, National Democratic Force, Democratic Party— Myanmar, Peace &
Democracy Party, Union Democracy Party and Peace and Unity Party. I didn't meet the Union Solidarity and
Development Party and the National Unity Party.
Q: Were the parties you met the same ones that the Euro-Burma Office provided financial support to during
last year's election?
A: We did not provide financial support to any political parties. It would have been deemed illegal and the
parties would have been deregistered. When we said we would support the people who wanted to contest the
elections, people equated it with funding for political parties. That was not the case. Our intent was not to
create political parties and partisanship. We wanted people to know their rights and to be able to use the
voting and parliamentary system to achieve their goals. We gave funding to organizations to provide training
on democratic principles, forming political parties, mobilizing voters, elections and how free and fairs
elections are conducted. We also enabled groups to monitor the elections. The trainees never knew the
funding came from us and we never knew the political affiliation of the trainees—some could have even
been from the USDP or NUP [the pro-military National Unity Party]. So there is no way for me to determine
if any of the people I met benefited from the training funded by the Euro-Burma Office.
Q: What are your views on the supposed split between hardliners and reformers in the new government?
What do you think of the suspension of the Myitsone dam, in terms of what it says about these divisions?
A: I personally do not believe that it is an issue of reformers versus hardliners. Everybody in the leadership
wants the new government to succeed. That is the whole plan of the SPDC [the State Peace and
Development Council, the former junta]—to legitimize military rule. The differences in the leadership are
about personal rivalries and concerns about whether President Thein Sein in trying to legitimize military rule
is going too far and too fast with his reforms. But if the reforms work, the concerns will be allayed and the
so-called hardliners will agree with the reforms. The suspension of the dam has financial implications for
some of the leaders. If these are addressed or compensated, it will have no significant effect on the power
Q: Some members of the government have been identified as reformers, while others are seen as more
resistant to reform. Many others, however, appear to be sitting on the fence. How do you think they could be
persuaded to join the reformist side?
A: Most people are probably fence-sitters. Under the system set up by Gen Ne Win fifty years ago and
continued by the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the
State Peace and Development Council, you survive by sitting on the fence and waiting for things to settle
down. Once it becomes clear which way the wind is blowing, everyone will join in. There is no need to
persuade any one.
Q: On the ethnic conflict front, you have advocated one-on-one negotiations between the government and
armed ethnic groups to achieve ceasefire agreements (as advocated by the government), followed by an
inclusive dialogue involving all of the armed groups together (as advocated by the United Nationalities
Federal Council) to reach a lasting political solution. However, many ethnic armed groups regard the first
phase of this process as a “divide and conquer” tactic. If this approach were adopted, how soon do you
think that the second phase could be initiated?
A: Let us be clear on this point—I have always advocated a political solution. But how it is done is for the
combatants themselves to decide. The government is proposing a four-step process: first, ceasefire; second,
exchange of liaison offices; third, prior notification when entering each other’s territory; and fourth, political
dialogue. Steps 1-3 are to be done at the state level and step 4 with Naypyidaw. I have said that in order to
start a political dialogue, there must first be a cessation of hostilities.
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You cannot talk when you are shooting at each other. When there is shooting, emotions are high and the
conflict can escalate to the point where it can no longer be controlled. At that point, your chances for a
political dialogue are nil.
The government’s proposal is naturally viewed with suspicion. But this is only the second time in 50 years
that the government has made an official offer for peace talks. The first time was in 1963 by Gen Ne Win.
The other peace talks in 1989 and the early 1990s were technically not official. They were made
surreptitiously by the intelligence service. Therefore, the current offer should not be rejected out of hand. It
should be explored. In any ceasefire negotiation, it makes sense for the actual combatants on the ground to
negotiate conditions since the requirements are specific to their circumstance. So talking to the state
government for steps 1-3 should not in theory present a big problem.
Any opponent in a conflict will seek to “divide and conquer.” That is normal. Everyone wants to negotiate
from a position of strength. Therefore, the key to not being exploited is to be prepared. If one is prepared, it
does not matter what tactic is used by your opponent. You can negotiate as a group or as many groups. If one
is unprepared, you will be defeated even if you negotiate as a single group.
When it comes to a political dialogue, the armed groups are not the only stakeholders. They are an important
stakeholder. But the people represented by their communities, their religious and cultural institutions, and the
political parties also need to be included, otherwise, we will not have a lasting political solution. This is
clearly demonstrated by the ceasefires of the 1990s. Deals were made between the leaders of the Tatmadaw
and the armed groups, there was a kind of peace but it was not sustainable, and no political solutions were
A cessation of hostilities can be implemented immediately. Negotiating the details of a ceasefire that will
ensure hostilities will not break out again can take time—maybe even a year. Seeking a political solution can
take even longer. It needs to involve not only the seven ethnic states but the whole nation. But the steps do
not need to take place sequentially. Political consultations can start as soon as there is a cessation of
Q: You have also reportedly offered to play a role in efforts to restore peace in ethnic areas. Is this correct,
and if so, what role do you envision for yourself?
A: I do not envision any role for myself beyond encouraging all stakeholders to seek a peaceful political
solution that is equitable and just. Successive governments have tried to resolve the “ethnic problem” in the
wrong way. Anyone trying to present an alternate view has always been seen as a subversive. The majority
population of Bamas (or Burmans) has never understood why the ethnic groups have been so troublesome.
Neither do any of the leaders past and present. Therefore, resolving the problem properly will not be easy.
The government and the general population need to understand the root causes and why the ethnic people are
not “grateful” for the “generosity” of the big brother Bamas. Decades of counterinsurgency operations have
exacerbated the hatred and resentment. The recent study released by the Ethnic Nationalities Council tries to
address some of the issues. We need more such interactions.
Most people—Burmese and the international community—still think of the ethnic problem as a peripheral
issue. They believe that once we have democracy in Burma, the issue can be resolved. That is not true. The
problem originated in the democracy era. We lost our freedom and democracy because Gen Ne Win did not
agree with the way the democratically elected government of U Nu tried to solve the problem by amending
the Constitution. The Tatmadaw will never allow full democracy to flourish in Burma, unless the ethnic issue
is resolved to its satisfaction.
The question is—can we find a solution that will satisfy the ethnic peoples, the majority Burmans and the
Tatmadaw? A possible way forward would be to use the provisions of the 2008 Constitution that allows state
legislatures and state governments. The mandate of these state institutions is limited but this is the only
constitution of the Union that begins to address the issue of internal self-determination that the ethnic states
have been advocating since independence in 1948. The mandate could be expanded which would be in line
with the president’s decentralization policy.
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The ethnic armed forces could also become a force under the control of the states like the National Guards in
Q: Why do you think the government has been so slow to release political prisoners? Do you think it is
holding out for some “payback” for concessions it has already made, such as the suspension of the Myitsone
dam, renewed contact with Aung San Suu Kyi and the relaxation of controls on the media?
A: Although we now have a “civilian” government, its mindset is still military. The leaders think in security
terms. Releasing all political prisoners could potentially lead to unrest. They are, therefore, releasing them in
batches and gauging the reaction of the prisoners and the population at large. If there are no negative
consequences, they will release them all. But if there is unrest, they will stop the releases.
Who would they expect a “payback” from?—the international community? I doubt they think in those terms.
If they did, they would have managed the “concessions” more effectively. The political prisoner issue,
though, is problematic. First, past governments have claimed that there are no political prisoners. The
opposition has claimed that there are 2,000 political prisoners. It is not widely known, but the Assistance
Association for Political Prisoners, after verifying its figures, has revised the figure down to about 1,300
political prisoners. The government, for its part, now says it has only about 600 political prisoners, with 100
of the 600 also charged with other crimes. The question now is when we say all political prisoners must be
released, what figure will we be satisfied with? 600? 1,300? or 2,000?
Q: Do you think Burma is going through a period of political transition?
A: Definitely. If we are expecting Burma to be an ideal democratic nation, it is clear that we are not yet there
and may never get there depending on one’s vision of an ideal democracy. But if we compare what is
happening in Burma now and what it was like even six months ago, we can definitely say that things are
changing. It could still go backwards but it seems to me that the momentum is building and that it will be
very difficult to go back to the old system unless there is a very big crisis and the president mishandles it. For
the sake of the people of Burma, I hope that will not happen.
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