When I left Burma 16 years ago, the last place where I stayed was the Rangoon home of my friend Thet Win Aung. We got up at three in the morning and said goodbye to his parents as monsoon rain poured down outside. Then we got in a car and headed for the Thai-Burmese border. Little did I know how much was to happen before I would be able to return to my homeland.

As I wrote in one of my earlier blog posts, Thet Win Aung and I both spent years in hiding after the student rebellion of 1988 was brutally suppressed by Burma’s military junta. By 1997 we decided that we could no longer stay inside Burma: Military Intelligence had managed to track down almost all of our hideouts. But in 1998, my friend decided to slip back into Burma to organize a peaceful movement calling for national reconciliation, but was later arrested. The authorities sentenced him to 59 years in prison for his work as a non-violent activist. He died in detention in October 2006. To those of us who knew him, his memory remains vivid.

So there was a good reason why one of the first places I visited after returning to Burma for the first time last month was his house. His parents are old now, but they are still gracious, courageous, and supportive. We had a long conversation in which we tried to assemble the missing pieces of his story. It turned out that his mother had no idea that he had returned to the country, so she was caught completely off guard when she saw her son’s face on state-run TV when they announced his arrest. The news came as her husband was heading back home from a visit to Thet Win Aung’s brother, another well-known activist then languishing in a remote prison. They had been consoled by the thought that at least Thet Win Aung was living beyond the harm of the regime in a Thai border town. They also told me that his life could have been saved if the prison officials had responded in a timely fashion when he collapsed in his prison cell. But, of course, they didn’t. The pain of those long-past events is still palpable. When I knelt down and paid my respects to them in good Buddhist fashion, I couldn’t help noticing that I was alone, and that Thet Win Aung was missing. I said goodbye and left. My mind was heavy, weighed down by a sense of unfinished business.

Not all of my encounters were sad. My return to Rangoon also gave me the opportunity to see my siblings for the first time in 23 years. My wife and my family invited our relatives, neighborhood friends, and teachers to join us for a reunion at a Rangoon monastery. There were greetings, cheers, hugs, and tears. Old memories resurfaced. Relatives and friends shared photographs of me from long ago. They said, “We kept these pictures for you in the hope that we would see you again and be able to give them to you personally.” Our nine-month-old daughter, born in America, was the real center of attention, though. Suddenly she discovered the many advantages of having an extended network of relatives, all eager to spoil her.

My cell phone rang again and again. “Do you know who I am?” the callers kept saying. “Oh, you don’t even recognize my voice.” It’s hard remembering people’s faces and voices over two decades of forced separation, but they refused to accept that as an excuse. They insisted that we had managed to remain connected nonetheless. “We always listened to your programs on the short-wave radio.” “We saw you on TV.” “We just read your Foreign Policy article.” I realized that ties among people who care for each other can be strong even without physical presence. It was a transcendent experience.

Though the warmth of the people hasn’t changed, the physical landscape of Rangoon, my old neighborhood, and even my high school have been transformed to such an extent that I hardly recognize them. Single-family houses are giving way to six- or seven-story apartment buildings, increasing the population in my small street by a factor of ten. The place feels crowded in a way it didn’t before. And as soon as I stepped outside of suburban Rangoon, I was jarred by people visibly suffering from poverty and disease. Over the past two decades my country has undergone intense polarization. There are the rich and the poor, and few people in between. There are the soldiers and the pro-democracy activists, and no one in the middle.

And yet Burma is a place where you can now feel free. Back in the early 1990s, I couldn’t make a turn at an intersection without reflexively looking behind to see whether someone from Military Intelligence was following me. It was a habit that stuck with me even after I arrived in Thailand. But now I don’t feel that pressure any more, and it was a relief. The liberalization process clearly has momentum, though whether it is really a path toward democratization remains debatable.

Our memory of clandestine politics is still fresh. My house in Rangoon was once a center for leading student and youth activists in the opposition movement. One of my old colleagues, the founder of a political prisoner support group in exile, suggested that we all act as if my house were a hideout and that we hold a meeting there just as we’d done twenty-plus years ago. Oddly enough, the whole thing turned out to be great fun, a wonderful attempt to relive and cherish old memories. As the afternoon yielded to evening, my old friends and colleagues, all of them former political prisoners, kept dropping in. Around nine in the evening, Min Ko Naing, once a chairman of our clandestine student union and now a leader of the 88 Generation Student Group, walked in. He was dressed just the way he was 24 years ago: Wearing a blue denim jacket and a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, as if he were still dodging surveillance. Everyone laughed. But we couldn’t help missing those who have been parted from us.

Coming back to your native country after such a long absence is bound to be a bittersweet experience. The same was true of my trip to Pagan, one of the centers of ancient Burmese civilization. One of our sayings has it that returning to Pagan is like going home. And so it was for me. Staying at a monastery on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, we got up every day before dawn to make food offerings to the lines of monks walking by. My siblings and I did this as a way of making merit for our late parents, who passed away while I was in exile. I was also honoring my former friends and colleagues who gave up their lives for the pro-democracy cause. A few years ago the junta forced the monks and villagers to move away from Pagan and as a result the monks now find it harder to get food. We were happy to do whatever we could to make up for the shortfall. Offering food to those in need and sharing merit with those to whom I owe so much always fills me with bliss.

One of the places that struck me the most in Pagan was the eleventh-century Manuha Temple, built as another act of merit by an eponymous king who was defeated in war. With the permission of the victor, who had taken him prisoner, Manuha built a temple filled with very large Buddha images enshrined in small niches. They are said to represent the feeling of being under detention. They fill all the space in the cramped interior, leaving barely enough room for visitors to sit and pray. I could feel the stress and discomfort that the captive king had to endure. At the temple’s dedication, Manuha prayed that “wherever I travel in the cycle of rebirth, may I never again be the prisoner of another.” The temple visit sobered me. I said a prayer of my own: That we, the Burmese people, may never again be the prisoners of tyrants.

Min Zin is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. This commentary originally appeared on the Foreign Policy blog “Transitions.” The views expressed here are those of the author.

7 Responses to Homecoming

  1. Dear Ko Min Zin, Burma needs people like you, that in one way or other tries their very best to speak truth to power. Yesterday only I conversed with my friend and comrade Ko Mya Than , a comrade of your phay phay who is here visiting his daughters , here in Perth and in Canberra. Its history that haunts me or we, you , I and others. We will have to account to history. Your late phay phay (another mya than, with another label/ signifier) and may may and loved ones., comrades and friends , most of all our people , the Burmese, understand, what sufferring and the human conditions we confront in our daily .existence . We as individuals and members of a society/collective /tribes or that bandied about word Burmese Buddhist culture , are proud of you all of us, comrades, friends , dead and , alive that goodness in you and others will prevail and Burma evolve to a Democratic . polity and society where human dignity is honored. The struggle for freedom-liberty and the pursuit of happiness continues in Burma. The history of Burma-Myanmar is not dead. Myanmar is still in the making. Democracy is us, we will do it.. The present is as history. Uncle U Myo Nyunt, Perth, Western Australia.

  2. Very moving and wonderfully written.mvery much appreciated.

  3. George Than Setkyar Heine

    BURMA NEEDS FIGHTING PEACOCKS like Min Ko Naing and his lot since day one until today folks.
    Going home back to Burma, visiting friends, siblings, relatives and sacred places while the country and people are STILL UNDER the HEELS of the FORMER and PRESENT MILITARY RULERS is NOT MY WAY much less MY SAY – STRUGGLE for DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS – and of course MY BRAND of REVOLUTION – TOPPLING MILITARY/AUTHORITARIAN RULE and ESTABLISHING DEMOCRATIC/REPRESENTATIVE RULE in Burma – which I am undertaking since 1988 until today.
    And I wouldn’t DARE FACE Min Ko Naing and his lot – who have sacrificed their lives caged in DOG-HOUSES in prison for nearly two decades – least of all not to mention talk about the matter nor visit the GRAVES of THOSE WHO HAVE GIVEN THEIR LIVES and LIMBS for Burma and the people in case I returned to my native land that I have left nearly a quarter of a century today STILL RUNNING AMOK with CRONIES, WAR CRIMINALS still KILLING our ethnic brethren Kachin people and KOW TOWING to the communists in Beijing until today.
    After LIVING in alien lands and acquiring all that wealth of knowledge, know how and a family as well and GOING BACK to BURMA still UNDER the RULE of Than Shwe’s CLERK is AKIN to BETRAYAL on the part of INDIVIDUALS (going on family visits most disgustingly) who LEFT the COUNTRY YELLING they are FIGHTING for DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS for Burma I say.
    Than Shwe is STILL KICKING and HOLDING Burma HOSTAGE until today VIA his CLERK (Thein Sein) and the communists in Beijing COVERING HIS ASS until today as well.
    Of course ONLY Min Ko Naing and his people KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING TODAY.
    The FIGHT for DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM and HUMAN RIGHTS that STARTED on March 2, 1962 IS STILL ONGOING UNTIL TODAY lest you guys forget.
    Hence, it is OUR DUTY, HONOR and for BURMA as well TO CONTINUE OUR FIGHT/STRUGGLE AGAINST the LOT at Naypyidaw CHANGING their TUNES/TUNICS (military uniform) FOR CIVILIAN ATTIRE ONLY and RUNNING BURMA today UNDER THEIR OWN BANNER and BRAND as well no less I say.
    And FREEDOM is NOT FREE and DEMOCRACY and HUMAN RIGHTS much less the RULE of LAW WILL NOT DERIVE FROM or COME OUT OF Than Shwe/Thein Sein’s PARLIAMENT at Naypyidaw as well, any bets?

    • Yebaw Gyee Ko Goerge than set Kyar, we , some of us anchor reality to our vision while others anchor their vision to reality. We were once students , and Goerge to me everyone I-you met on the road, perhaps the road less travelled . They were and are my-our teachers, masters and mistresses, at one point of time and a given space, and we have to learn from him -her.. Yebaw gyee Goerge. There should be trust in the other as self , but the limits of endearing trust towards the other is a choice each one of us has to make . Hatred is never ended by hatred but by love-metta. Bo Myo . Perth, Western Australia.

  4. George Than Setkyar Heine

    Myo Nyunt.
    You can’t/don’t get your FREEDOM much less DEMOCRACY and HUMAN RIGHTS by SHOWING LOVE to those DESPOTS in uniform/civilian attire RUNNING Naypyidaw today trust me man.
    Daw Suu is APPLYING that kind of APPROACH as you witness today.
    And she is ‘ASKED’ to SWEEP the FLOOR only instead of DOING HER JOB – abolish/amend Than Shwe’s Nargis 2008 constitution the very instrument – the LID – to keep us under the heels of the Burmese military like you and I both have had the DISPLEASURE of EXPERIENCING during our first show of displeasure on military rule (Ne Win’s) on July 7, 1962 (a Saturday) and our STUDENT UNION BUILDING went into OBLIVION on the early morning of July 8, 1962, remember?
    I hooked up with the 8888 Generation Students who left Burma to fight for restoration of democracy and freedom in our beloved land in Thailand in the wake of the August 8, 1988 nationwide uprisings in Burma and had been struggling for our freedom since then until today.
    Of course I am a practising Buddhist until today and know the meaning and measure of Metta as well.
    DON’T YOU EVER TRUST the VIPERS (specifically the mob at Naypyidaw) at any time and juncture, lest you forget.
    And let me tell you this as well: LEOPARDS DON’T CHANGE their SPOTS no matter what!
    Again, FREEDOM is NOT FREE as well.
    You have to FIGHT for your FREEDOM and RIGHTS specifically in the case of Burma as Than Shwe has DRAWN and LAID DOWN HIS PATH to VICTORY/VICTIMIZATION (military elite and crony rule over ordinary citizenry in Burma) of Burma under quasi-military/pseudo-civilian rule in Burma like today since August 31, 1993, (Seven Step Road Map) and until eternity if you keep sending Than Shwe led mob at Naypyidaw your METTA ONLY and without DEALING with THEM accordingly and in like manner if you don’t know yet.
    That’s the BOTTOM LINE I say friend.

  5. Your article has made me cry as I haven’t gone back yet to my tragic country to face the reality after 24 years. I need a lot of courage to do that without having any hard feelings. I do wish the same thing for the Burmese people , for them not to have the same fate as King Manuha. One way or the other, we all have suffered a lot.

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