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.