CHIANG MAI - The Burmese natives, exiled here in Thailand, were 20-years-old when they left their homeland nearly a quarter of a century ago. They fled Rangoon after having dodged bullets or escaped prison following the military regime's bloody repression of the 1988 democratic movement, when at least 3,000 people were killed.
Today, these former students from the University of Rangoon have become journalists, NGO workers, politicians or sometimes all of the above. From Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand where most of them settled after the "1988 movement," they are observing, with a critical eye, the process of "democratization" currently underway in Myanmar. They all admit to taking the government's promises with a pinch of salt.
This year, some of them decided to visit Myanmar for the first time after a 24-year absence.
Toe Zaw Latt is the Chiang Mai bureau chief for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a radio and television agency based in Oslo, Norway. The DVB played an important – militant - role during Myanmar's military rule.
A few days before the government announced the end of media censorship on August 20, Zaw Latt outlined the paradoxes of the country's present situation: "We have opened a bureau in Rangoon with 36 reporters, who are working under a 'semi-legal' jurisdiction. We are on the path of becoming completely legal, but censorship has still not been abolished. The authorities are dragging their feet and their promises are vague."
For Toe Zaw Latt, it is still too soon to dream of relocating the agency's headquarters to Rangoon. The DVB has announced it will soon leave Oslo, but it wants to keep the Chiang Mai bureau as the network's foothold. Chiang Mai - the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna, which was established in the 13th century by King Mangrai, and subjected to Burmese rule for several decades in the 16th century - seems to have taken on once again the status of informal capital for the diaspora of exiled, Burmese elites.
The proximity to the home country was one of the reasons why the diaspora chose to settle here. Another reason is the town's charm: often dubbed the "Northern Rose" by the Thai people, the city of 250,000 people has not been ruined by modernization or urban expansion.
Aung Zaw, 44, who is without a doubt the most well-known Burmese journalist in exile, is also showing a certain amount of skepticism towards the political and economic changes in Myanmar.
Since the spring of 2011, these changes have taken the form of multiple promises that have more or less been kept, such as the liberation of the majority of political prisoners, a certain amount of press freedom, a theoretical guarantee for the right to protest, the creation of free unions, a truce with ethnic guerilla organizations, the beginnings of economic liberalization, the privatization of some state-owned companies, etc.
Aung Zaw launched Irrawaddy in 1993, a fortnightly magazine that is now exclusively online. "We thought about opening a bureau in Rangoon, but we must face the fact that the democratic transition is only in its first stages," says the journalist who has endured torture in Myanmar’s infamous Insein prison.
"We won’t make any deals with the government, we will not obey any means of censorship," assures Aung Zaw, who met with several high-ranking officials during his recent trips to Myanmar, after a 24-year absence. "I don't think the Burmese people are in a position to fully participate in these changes."
However, he does think the Burmese President Thein Sein is without a doubt sincere and that he is a true reformer. Aung Zaw, however, like many of the regime's long-time opponents, has bigger doubts about the army's withdrawal from political matters once and for all. "Thein Sein has taken big risks, he's walking on a tightrope. The process that he has initiated - primarily to keep some distance from China, and now to improve Burmese relations with the rest of the world - is still fragile..."
Representatives of ethnic minorities, some of which are also based in Chiang Mai and have become journalists, have also found it difficult to accept in good faith this type of truce proposed by a government, which is largely composed of former generals.
Khuensai Jaiyen is a member of the considerably large Shan minority and the editor-in-chief of the Shan Herald Agency for News, after having been one of the spokespersons of Khun Sa, the famous former guerrilla chief and opium lord.
"The agreements to suspend hostilities which were signed at the start of the year between the Burmese authorities and the two main Shan organizations - the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) and its rival the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) - have been infringed more than 50 times in total. We are wondering if we can even call it a 'cease-fire' anymore," says the editor, in flawless English. "But I should say that I am not a pessimist, I'm rather a realist with regards to peace in Myanmar."
We hear the same thing from another 'journalist activist,' Lahpai Nawdin, of Kachin ethnicity, and editor-in-chief for the Kachin News website. For this former teacher, no negotiation or agreement is about to happen between the government and the guerrilla movement in the north, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
"The Americans and Europeans have shown themselves to be naïve by lifting most of the economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar. They believe that Myanmar is on the path to democracy, but they are wrong," he says. "Even Aung San Suu Kyi has failed; her struggle hasn't changed Myanmar. But the West are counting on her alone, which is another big mistake."
The Lady of Rangoon has aroused suspicion from ethnic groups who find it difficult to trust a member of the Bamar ethnicity, the majority population that lends its name to the country.
After more than six decades of war between the army and the ethnic groups, national reconciliation will be both long and tortuous.