Myanmese exiles say junta's reach extends to HK

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2007, 12:00am

Consulate accused of using passport powers to silence critics, writes Vaudine England

Dr Samuel Lin knows the cost of speaking out about the situation in his home country, Myanmar. Back in 1988, when the military junta opened fire on pro-democracy protesters, killing 3,000 people, Dr Lin couldn't keep quiet about the agony he felt.

Living safely in Hong Kong, he wrote letters to the South China Morning Post. Because of that, he believes, when his Myanmese passport was next up for renewal, it was revoked instead.

'In 1988, that was the first time the people of Burma [he refuses to call the country Myanmar] rose up against the military dictators. At that time I expressed my feelings of outrage in the papers,' he says. 'And for that my passport was revoked. And not only my passport but my wife's passport and even my domestic helper's work permit was revoked by the Burmese consulate general. That's how they punish people and keep them in line,' Dr Lin says.

He says the consulate never linked his passport problems to his public statements. 'They just said, 'You know what you've done',' he recalls.

He was at a candlelight vigil held in Hong Kong on September 28, but could see only a couple of other Myanmese who dared to make public their feelings about the latest repression of peaceful protest back home.

'There are many, many Burmese expatriates in Hong Kong and abroad. A lot of them have the same feelings as me, but for various reasons, real or imagined, the fear of this military still rules or influences them,' says Dr Lin, 60, who is now retired.

'Many times because they have ties with the mother country, the family, they will not come out openly, but at the same time their feelings are as strong as mine.

'This is a very well-known way of controlling the exiles or expatriates, people who have left Burma, who think we are out of their grasp. By revoking passports and denying visas, they make sure that they are still there, they can still cause difficulties for us. And many people suffer a lot.'

Precisely because he has already lost his Myanmese nationality, Dr Lin is one of the few in Hong Kong prepared to speak on the record about his country.

Not for the first time, Hong Kong's tradition of freedom gave him a new identity, just as it has given sanctuary to many in past times, including Ho Chi Minh.

Dr Lin had been living here since 1983 and so had right of abode in Hong Kong. He was able to convert that into British nationality.

Other Myanmese who have made their home here are similarly distressed by the recent events in their homeland - but they won't say so in public.

Their biggest fear is of reprisals against relatives living in Myanmar. They cite examples of how people were refused state scholarships or the right to travel because of statements made by relatives overseas. One believes his sister was refused a Myanmese passport for many years because he had spoken out in the past.

Others are simply too busy with their businesses to make a fuss. One jokes that it is a sign of how integrated some Myanmese have become here - they feel there is no point becoming political because they can't change anything anyway.

'I feel extremely sad and extremely impotent, watching my country people massacred on the streets of Rangoon and all the other towns in Burma. My heart bleeds,' Dr Lin says.

'It's even worse when you can't do anything. Dictatorial regimes are not stable, but at the moment they seem omnipotent when you are willing to shoot monks and people at will.'

Dr Lin admits it is disappointing that local Myanmese have kept so quiet. In Singapore, where the government bans any gathering of more than five people, about 100 Myanmese protested outside their embassy daily.

Another reason for the silence in Hong Kong is that most Myanmese here are wealthy professionals, some with property or other interests at stake.

Dr Lin and friends estimate there are a few thousand Myanmese here, although the consulate puts the number at just 250.

The consulate general also denies practising any form of control over their people. 'According to visa rules and regulations, [the] consulate issues visa to all applicants who comply with necessary requirements,' the consulate said.

The consulate also denies having a blacklist of Myanmar passport holders.

'Our consulate responsibilities are to protect Myanmar people and take care of their privileges.'

But Myanmese, who ask that their names not be used, insist the fear of reprisals is real.

Myanmese began leaving their country in the mid-1960s when the limits of military rule and the lack of opportunities for professionals became clear. They have settled around the world.

'There are Burmese doctors in South Africa, in Jamaica,' says Dr Lin. 'We are almost like the 'Asian Palestinians' now. Many of us are highly educated, but we have to leave our country in order to survive.'

Those exiles have watched from afar as Myanmar's wealth dissipated and the once proud nation was reduced to poverty.

'Normally natural resources are a blessing for a country, but for Burma they are a curse,' said Dr Lin. 'In Burma, they buy armaments with all the money they make from the jade, the rubies, the sapphires and the oil and gas. It brings in the economic vultures, flying round the corpse of Burma.'

Other exiles living in Hong Kong say they feel constrained because of China, as well as what they believe to be scrutiny from their own consulate.

Not so Dr Lin.

'China is the godfather of the military junta there. I am really surprised that China did not make use of the position it holds. For China it would have been a win-win situation to rein in the military junta. China would have earned a lot of kudos from the international community.'