Time to Return Home?

By Kenneth Wong 30 June 2015

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Htun Myat Oo keeps a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi on the dashboard of his San Francisco cab. Many of his passengers recognize the image. It’s the face of Myanmar’s struggle for democracy, made famous in the covers of Time, the front pages of Newsweek and the biopic by Luc Besson.

Inevitably, questions follow: Why do you have her photo? Are you from Myanmar? Have you ever seen her?

In quick chats between lane changes and traffic jams, some taxi riders learn that their cabbie not only knew The Lady but once worked for her and went to jail for her. “They tend to be surprised, sometimes even shocked,” Htun Myat Oo said.

Nicknamed Ko Pan Thee, Htun Myat Oo was formerly part of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Youth leadership—a fact that was more than enough to get him arrested under a military junta intent on stamping out political dissent.

After serving four years in jail from 1989 to 1993, Htun Myat Oo was released under a general amnesty. In 2008, he arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area as a refugee. He has lived in the United States long enough to qualify for citizenship. “But I’m not applying yet,” he said. “I’m holding out, waiting to see what happens in 2015.”

For Htun Myat Oo and many like him, the general election due to take place in Myanmar later this year will be the best barometer to measure the shifting political winds. Its outcome may help them make one of the toughest choices they confront: to go home or remain abroad.

When Going Home was a No-Go

US Census Bureau data for 2010 show an estimated 100,000 Myanmar living in the United States, though this is almost certainly an underestimation for today. Fort Wayne, Indiana, is home to one of the largest overseas Myanmar communities. Other communities have sprung up around immigrant-friendly places like California and New York.

Former political prisoners and dissidents like Htun Myat Oo began arriving in larger numbers after the 1988 uprising and subsequent crackdown. Many of them remained politically active overseas. While learning English in community colleges and eking out livings in entry-level jobs, they continued to organize and hold political rallies for their homeland.

In late 2007, when news broke of the authorities’ use of force against the Saffron Revolution monks, Bay Area-based activists staged a sidewalk protest in front of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to pressure the Chinese government to rethink its policy towards its neighbor. In the following year, they held fundraisers in local monasteries to help the victims of Cyclone Nargis. Every year on June 19 they lit candles on a cake to wish The Lady “Happy Birthday!”

“Going home” was something they talked about, but didn’t think possible. For many, the thought of return meant facing the prospect of arrest. Rightly or wrongly, many dissidents assumed they were on the government blacklist.

In August 2012, President Thein Sein’s office released the names of more than 2,000 individuals taken off a blacklist believed to number around 6,000, a gesture signaling his administration’s commitment to reform. The status of the remaining blacklisted persons is still unclear.

One month after the president’s announcement, former student leader Moe Thee Zun landed at Yangon’s Mingaladon airport to a cheering crowd. His return from New York was a good test case.

In 2009, when the then-prime minister Thein Sein came to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Moe Thee Zun was among a small but vocal crowd of overseas activists who staged a protest across the street from the hotel that housed the Myanmar officials. When the delegation exited the hotel, Moe Thee Zun threw a shoe at the motorcade.

If Moe Thee Zun was permitted to return, the path seemed clear for those associated with even lesser offences.

Testing the Waters

Ko Ko Lay and Moe Thee Zun—both of whom were once part of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front—joined eight others for a 2012 trip dubbed “Peace Mission to the Motherland.”

“We wanted to test the waters, to see if we could trust them,” Ko Ko Lay recalled. “Would they arrest us? Would they do something to us? Whatever they might do, we were ready.”

Despite their trepidation, the delegation was invited to meet with representatives of various ministries and its members were treated with courtesy and respect. Emboldened, they returned in 2013 to attend the silver jubilee of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. It also proved a successful trip but still, Ko Ko Lay found it difficult to trust the incumbent government. He thinks the feeling is mutual.

“These people were once part of the leadership of a military regime,” he reasoned. “I don’t think they trust us either. How could they? We took up arms against them. But the thing is, if we want democracy, we have to sit down and have discussions. We can’t keep fighting each other. We have to start building trust.”

Salai Tun Than, formerly professor and dean of Yezin Agricultural University, made headlines when he was arrested in 2001 for staging a solo protest in front of Yangon City Hall. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. He had previously studied in the United States in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Florida universities as a state scholar, and calls for his release reverberated overseas. In May 2003, the government released him, citing “health and humanitarian concerns.”

Salai Tun Than traveled to San Francisco to visit his children, but ended up staying indefinitely. Eventually he applied for US citizenship, in order to be able to sponsor his wife to join him. “I never really intended to live abroad,” he explained. “But six months later, when I tried to return, they refused to let me go back in.”

In June 2006, Salai Tun Than attempted to enter Myanmar, but was stopped before he could board his Thai Airways flight at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport. Then, in 2014, he heard from several sources that he was no longer on the government’s blacklist. Last December, at his former students’ urging, he decided to try to attend the 90th anniversary of his alma mater, Yezin Agricultural University. This time, he wasn’t stopped, although the visit was not without incident.

“My former students came to visit me at the guesthouse where I was staying. Sometimes the whole class would come to pay homage. They posted photos on Facebook. I think it got too much attention and made the authorities uneasy,” he said. “Eventually, I was told I couldn’t stay at the guesthouse anymore.”
On the other hand, when he applied for a visa extension, it was granted. Salai Tun Than stayed in Myanmar from December until early April. “I think within the government, there are reformists who want to change,” he remarked. “But generally speaking, many of them seem to have just changed costumes, like actors in a theater troupe. Their mindset remains the same.”

Political Lives on Pause

If the military regime hadn’t nullified the outcome of Myanmar’s 1990 general election, Maung Maung Latt would have been a member of Parliament. Born and raised in the town of Bilin in Mon State, Maung Maung Latt represented his district for the NLD.

He sought and received political asylum in the United States in 1999 and, once abroad, joined the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. Today, he is the organization’s vice president.

In June 2013, Burma’s Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann paid a visit to the overseas Myanmar community in the Bay Area. Maung Maung Latt was in attendance and the men shook hands. “I’ve been studying [Shwe Mann],” Maung Maung Latt said. “I think he cares about the people. But I also think he remains loyal to the military.”

Maung Maung Latt’s political inclinations remain strong. He listens to the BBC, RFA and VOA for the latest developments back home. In his free time, he reads up on the US Constitution and has a lot to say about how the US model could be applied to Myanmar. Ideally, he said, he would like to resume his political career in Bilin.

“But that wouldn’t be possible under current Union Election Commission rules,” he said. The rules state that one must have lived in the country for at least 10 consecutive years prior to the election in order to run for Parliament.

Maung Maung Latt has never applied for a visa. He suspects he risks arrest and might put his loved ones in the country in jeopardy by going back because of his political activism overseas.

If he is given the chance to return home, Maung Maung Latt said he’d like to pay homage to his parents, whose funeral he wasn’t able to attend. “Maybe I can organize a donation ceremony in a monastery in their name,” he said. “And I’d also like to report to my constituents. They elected me. I owe it to them to let them know about the work I’ve been doing.”

Waiting for Signs

Typical immigrants work to integrate themselves into the social fabric of their new home country and make the most of newfound socio-economic opportunities. It’s different for political refugees and former dissidents. The possibility of one day going home, and the duty they feel to do so, prevent many from fully resettling in the new land.

Ko Ko Lay said, “I haven’t done anything in the US that would tie me down. I haven’t bought a home. I don’t have children. I’ve arranged my life so that I can pick up and go.”

His personal policy, he said, is to “work together [with the government] so long as they show signs of genuine reform.” But one factor he finds troubling is the current government’s reluctance to amend the 2008 Constitution, which bars Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency and guarantees the military 25 percent representation in Parliament.

“To me, that Constitution is not democratic,” Ko Ko Lay said. “If they change the Constitution today, I’ll go back tomorrow.”

Salai Tun Than also charts a course between hope and hesitation. “If the same government is reelected, I don’t want to go back,” he said. “If there are signs that prove their mindset has changed, perhaps I might go back, but I haven’t seen such signs so far.”

For Htun Myat Oo, the decision to return is no longer his alone to make. “My son said he likes living in the US so I can’t just drop everything and go back. I’d have to split my time between the US and Myanmar,” he said.

“I didn’t leave my homeland by choice. I left fully thinking of going back one day. I’m ready to go. I think the new government should welcome back overseas dissidents like us, who have gained lots of experience. We have a lot to contribute to the country’s rebuilding.”

Some Bay Area couples have been surprised to learn that the man hired to shoot their wedding photos, Ko Ko Lay, once belonged to a ragtag student army that fought against a brutal military regime.

Circumstances have forced these activists, aspiring lawmakers and civic leaders to become photographers, taxi drivers and deck builders. Their humble occupations seem a mismatch for the historic events they participated in and the roles they played. Many continue to harbor aspirations to go home, to help make history, or—at least—to witness it.

But they also see the present political landscape of Myanmar as fraught with risks and uncertainties, making it difficult for them to give up what they have as immigrants and start all over again.

“I know of at least one comrade who became homeless in the US,” Ko Ko Lay said. “But even so, he wouldn’t go back. He’d rather live homeless in a free country than go back to live under an unjust system. Look at the way the police shot a protester in Letpadaung. Look at the way they used force to crush the student protest in Letpadan. These [incidents] should tell you what kind of government this is.”

The Myanmar Embassy in Washington DC was asked to provide clarification on its policy regarding overseas dissidents for this article, specifically on the proper procedures required to remove oneself from the blacklist. At press time, it had not yet responded.

Kenneth Wong is a Myanmar-American author and blogger who grew up in Yangon. He now lives in San Francisco, California. His essays, short stories, and poetry translations have appeared in Grain, AGNI, Eleven Eleven and San Francisco Chronicle magazines.

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.