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.
|Harn Yawnghwe. (Photo: Shan Herald Agency for News) |
: 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 to be?
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 expected the opposite.
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 country?
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 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.