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BANGKOK -- Exiled Burmese media outfits and journalists, buoyed by the changes happening in their country, are packing up to go home.
“Yes, it’s a big risk but we want to take this risk,” Ye Win, 42, who works with the online site of the Irrawaddy Publishing Group, told InterAksyon here.
In fact, Irrawaddy, the respected magazine founded by former student activist Aung Zaw in 1993, has begun publishing inside Myanmar, which Ye Win, like many of his compatriots in exile, continues to call Burma.
The next step, says Ye Win, is “to set up an office in Burma.”
Aung Aung Phyo, 29, a hardware specialist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a radio and satellite television outfit, said DVB, too, “is trying to” set up inside the country, although he admits “nothing is definite” at this point.
But, “if I get the chance, I will go back,” he said.
Ye Win last saw Yangon in 1989.
A year before, he had joined the student movement that mounted protests against the ruling military junta.
The next year, as the junta cracked down on the students, Ye Win, like many others, was on the run, heading for the jungles where they sought shelter in the area controlled by Karen rebels and where they set up their own armed resistance movement.
There, he worked as an information officer, honing his writing skills.
By 2001, Ye Win realized “I was too skinny to go up against the professional military” and left, crossing the border into Thailand, linking up with the Burmese exiles in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
The next year, he joined Irrawaddy and, a year after, took up a formal journalism course offered by Internews.
What drove Aung Aung Phyo into exile in 2008 was more mundane, though reflective of how bad things had become in Burma.
“There was no opportunity for advancement,” he said. “I really wanted to take up computer technology but it was too expensive and so I had to settle for business and management.”
But there simply was no gainful employment to be found and so he found a job in Thailand as a computer technician.
However, “the language barrier made it difficult.”
Eventually, though, “a friend suggested I apply with DVB,” where he maintains hardware and other equipment for the outfit that broadcasts shortwave radio and satellite TV programs into Burma by a roundabout route that takes its signals all the way to Norway where it is retransmitted into the country.
“Personally, I want to go back, I can feel the change is real,” Ye Win said.
The main source of his optimism is, of course, the victory of Nobel laureate and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other candidates of the National League for Democracy in last month’s by-elections.
However, Ye Win stresses that there is more to it than that.
“There is the release of political prisoners, the introduction of economic reforms. And the government has invited all media in exile to visit,” he points out.
He admits being “concerned it might not last,” especially since the government continues to try to make media its mouthpiece.
“The challenge is how to maintain the critical culture and nature of the exiled media” in a country where there are “still no concrete laws to protect the media and journalists.”
But Ye Win says there has been a real loosening up and even formerly compliant publications have begun venturing into once taboo territory -- critical reporting.
“Recently, a pro-government newspaper reported on corruption. Its main source was a member of parliament. It got sued for libel,” he said.
But while he welcomes the changes, Ye Win said the reason for the easing up by government stems not from altruism or a newfound respect for democracy but from a more basic need -- survival.
“I understand this government recognizes where we are,” he said. “Their main concern is the economy. Burma has been left far behind; even Cambodia is now stronger. This made them wake up and start reforms.”
But, he adds, “I think they realize economic reform cannot go alone. They want to lift the (economic) sanctions (and to do so), need to follow political demands of the West: release the political prisoners, enter into negotiations with Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition.”
Ye Win and Aung Aung Phyo see the next three years as crucial.
Burma hopes to host the 2013 Southeast Asian Games and is slated to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations the year after.
“To succeed, the government must maintain its promise of reform,” Ye Win said. “At least 50-60 percent of the promises, they have to keep on track.”
But the make or break year will be 2015, when general elections take place.
“If the opposition wins, like the landslide of 1990, the question is how government responds. Will it transfer power or not?” Ye said.
The junta disregarded the results of the 1990 elections and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest for more then a decade.
Ye Win has no doubt about the results in 2015.
“The NLD will win, I am very sure, based on the by-elections,” he said. “That is why I have decided to take the risk and go back.”
What if he guesses wrong?
“The whole country will explode,” Ye Win quickly replies.
But if this happens, he sees a different kind of uprising breaking out.
“The time for armed struggle is over,” he said.