After 36 years living as an outlaw, exiled Burmese communist ex-Gen Kyaw Zaw has been allowed to return home to pay his final respects at Rangoon’s holiest site of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Kyaw Zaw, a member of Burma’s legendary “Thirty Comrades” independence heroes, left his Rangoon home to join the Community Party of Burma (CPB) by the Sino-Burmese border in 1976 and started launching guerrilla attacks against the central government.
The critically ill 93-year-old fled to China in 1989 and is currently admitted to the intensive care unit at Kunming General Hospital, Yunnan Province, where he breathes via an oxygen supply and has food delivered through a nasogastric tube.
His daughter, Hla Kyaw Zaw, thanked the Burmese government for granting his dying wish. She told The Irrawaddy on Monday that President’s Office Minister Aung Min phoned her personally at the weekend to welcome her father to return.
“U Aung Min warmly told me that with the permission of President Thein Sein, they invited U Kyaw Zaw to return to Burma,” Hla Kyaw Zaw recalled. “He said ‘tell us what we need to prepare for him such as healthcare.’”
Kyaw Zaw is one of two surviving Thirty Comrades who fought against the British colonialists to secure an independent Burma. His only surviving comrade, Bo Ye Htut, still lives in Rangoon. Kyaw Zaw was born in Hsaisu Village in Tharawaddy District of Pegu Division and later became actively involved in the anti-imperialist movement in Burma.
Led by Burmese independence hero Gen Aung San, the father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Thirty Comrades went to China’s Hainan Island during World War II to receive military training in order to defeat the British armed forces. After returning to Burma, the Thirty Comrades fought alongside the Japanese Imperial Army against the Allies.
Hla Kyaw Zaw said that she hoped to contribute to the country’s current process of political reform. “We will return to live [in Burma] permanently and contribute to Burmese politics,” she said, adding that they will travel when her father’s health has sufficiently recovered.
Hla Kyaw Zaw, however, expressed disappointment that the government has not also allowed her brother Aung Kyaw Zaw, a political observer and outspoken critic of the Burmese regime who also lives in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province, to return as well.
Former CPB leader Kyaw Zaw was a founding member of the Burmese army and also joined the nationalist Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) during the colonial era, later taking the name of Thakin Shwe.
The CPB maintained a large guerrilla army in Burma throughout the 1970s, but now has no further role in Burma politics after internal divisions decreased its strength.
Veteran politician Thakin Chan Htun, also a former member of Dobama Asiayone, welcomed Thein Sein’s invitation to Kyaw Zaw but did not expect his return to have a political impact.
“At least Kyaw Zaw will complete his last wish to pay tribute at the Shwedagon Pagoda,” he said. “It is a great thing. But I think [Kyaw Zaw] could not contribute to Burma’s political movement as he is getting too old and ill.”
Some observers see the growing number of returning exiled Burmese dissidents including heavyweight figures as a political game that benefits Thein Sein quasi-civilian administration. It also promotes the image of the government as bridging the gap between opposition groups both inside and outside the country.
Hla Kyaw Zaw said that she would talk to concerned officials about once again recognizing the CPB as a legitimate political organization. “I told [Aung Min] that we need to talk a lot about our political plans. There are many things that we need to work on,” she said.
The Irrawaddy reporter Yan Pai also contributed into this article.