You Can’t Go Home Again

An exiled journalist returns to a changed Burma.

Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images
Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

RANGOON — Sixteen years ago, on a rainy, moonless May night, I left Burma. My friend Thet Win Aung and I had been in hiding, working in the pro-democracy underground, for nearly nine years by that point — writing, organizing, and pushing for a new politics, led by our hero and confidante, Aung San Suu Kyi. But early that year, we saw the junta’s net of military intelligence finally closing in around us, and we made the decision to flee.

That final night, we stayed at Thet Win Aung’s Rangoon home, packing our belongings and contacting what friends and family we could. At 3 a.m., we said goodbye to his parents as the monsoon rain poured down. Then we got in a car and headed for the Burma-Thailand border, past checkpoints and guards, out of the low Rangoon flood plain and up into the jungle hills to the east. Little did I know how long it would be — and how much was to happen — before I would be able to return to my homeland.

A year later, my friend decided to slip back into Burma to organize a movement calling for national nonviolent reconciliation. He was arrested and sentenced to 59 years in prison. We heard little about Thet Win Aung over the next eight years. I worked as a reporter on the border and in Bangkok, as a visiting scholar in Berkeley, California, and as a journalist in Washington. Thet Win Aung sat in his cell. He died, reportedly broken and beaten, like so many hundreds before him, in detention in October 2006.

Today, Burma is a different place. After decades as a violent military dictatorship and pariah state — a North Korea on the Irrawaddy — it is finally seeming to embrace a new democratic political experiment. Over the last two years, the military junta has released its throttlehold on power, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, relaxing restrictions on the media, and finally allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled there last year in a historic gesture of a budding new relationship between Washington and Naypyidaw. So, in that spirit, I finally went home too, to see my old friends — and to try to understand if and how Burma had really changed.

One of the first places I visited after arriving last December was Thet Win Aung’s house. His parents are old now, but gracious and courageous. He and I had been childhood friends growing up in Rangoon, and we spent our teenage years together, playing guitar and soccer. When Burma’s democratic struggle burst into the streets in 1988, we were high school students, and we became active helping to organize the student-led democratic uprisings that summer. For our efforts, we were summarily kicked out of school. For years after that, we lived underground, moving from house to house, disguising our identities, always looking over our shoulders. His parents had been supportive, and when I returned from my long exile they greeted me warmly and we sat for hours trying to assemble the missing pieces of his story.

In 1998, his mother had no idea that he had returned to the country, she told me, and was caught completely off guard when she saw her son’s face on state-run TV next to officials announcing 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, up until then, by the thought that at least their other son was living beyond the harm of the regime in a Thai border town. They told me that his life could have been saved if prison officials had responded in a timely fashion when he collapsed in his cell. I felt searing guilt. I knelt down and paid my respects in the Buddhist fashion, said goodbye, and left. But my mind was heavy, weighed down by a sense of unfinished business.

Not all my encounters were so sad. 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. Our 9-month-old daughter, born in America, was the real center of attention. My cell phone rang again and again. “Do you know who this is?” the callers kept saying. “Oh, you don’t even recognize my voice!” Again, I felt pangs of guilt: It’s hard remembering people’s faces and voices after nearly two decades of forced separation, but they refused to accept that we had ever really been apart. “We always listened to your programs on the shortwave radio.” “We saw you on TV.” “We just read your article.” It was a transcendent experience. But they were wrong: Time passes and we forget; things do change.

THE PHYSICAL LANDSCAPE of Rangoon — my old neighborhood, even my high school — had been transformed to such an extent that I hardly recognized it. My family’s old house turned out to be badly in need of repairs. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was one of a few concrete two-story buildings in a neighborhood of low, traditional wood houses. In exile, I often recalled lying on the balcony, enjoying the sun and breeze. Today, seven-story apartment buildings cast long shadows over our house, and the population on my small street has increased by a factor of 10. The city feels crowded in a way it didn’t before. People visibly suffer from poverty and disease. There are beggars and the homeless, refugees from the ethnic areas to the east and from up north. Over the past two decades, Burma has seen an intense polarization: There are the rich and the poor, but few in between. There are the soldiers and the pro-democracy activists, but no one in the middle.

Yet it’s now a place where I can feel free. I can’t explain how odd this was. 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 trailing me. It was a habit that stuck with me even after I arrived in Thailand. As I walked through the streets of Rangoon gathering supplies for a homecoming party, I felt the same reflex and, in some way, almost a funny nostalgia for those days.

My house was once a center for the opposition movement. One of my old colleagues, the founder of a political-prisoner support group for exiles, suggested that we all act as if it were a hideout again, just as we’d done some 20 years ago. There were more wrinkles and aching joints this time, but it turned out to be a wonderful evening. My old friends and colleagues, all former political prisoners, kept dropping in. Around 9 p.m., Min Ko Naing, once a chairman of our clandestine student union and now a leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group, walked in. He was dressed just the way he would have been two decades ago: a blue denim jacket and a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, as if he were still dodging surveillance. Everyone laughed. But there were holes in our group, Thet Win Aung among them, and we couldn’t help missing those taken from us.

Still, nostalgia is not a political program. And the more I spoke with Burma’s intellectuals, with the dissidents who had str
uggled alongside me so many years ago, what I heard was not simply joy about a country finally opening to the world after having been dubbed one of the “outposts of tyranny” by the U.S. government — but also the striking disappointment, in particular with our beloved Aung San Suu Kyi. People who once went to jail with her name on their lips, ready to die for the cause she represented, now express frustration about the lack of political institutions and viable alternatives within the opposition movement. “All Aung San Suu Kyi has done since 2011 is personalize politics,” one famous magazine editor told me in a tea shop in Rangoon. “In a range of crucial policy issues, from her support for the removal of sanctions to her cozy relations with business cronies who benefited from the junta, she never consults other stakeholders in the democracy movement. She plays a one-woman show.” I felt a personal sadness in this.

As a high school activist, I had frequently visited the Lady, as Aung San Suu Kyi is reverently known, at her house at No. 54 University Avenue, and had worked closely with her in the wake of the 1988 student uprising. She was the first person I met in our hierarchically structured society who treated younger people with genuine respect. I had met several veteran politicians who saw me more as an eager grandson; our meetings ended with teas, cakes, and other snacks, but substantive political issues were off the table. Aung San Suu Kyi was totally different. She called me Ko Min Zin (Ko is a respectful prefix for a young male adult), and she listened to, argued against, and laughed with me — a bright-eyed 15-year-old, the same age as her son.

Today, however, even among those who love and respect Aung San Suu Kyi, her sainthood appears tarnished by an increasing aloofness and distance from the rest of the political opposition. Her leadership style makes her unapproachable. In the party congress of her National League for Democracy, held in March — the first in more than 20 years — she alone handpicked her central executive committee. But even worse than this worrying authoritarian streak, she seems willing, even eager, to please the former generals at the expense of moral and political principles. One of the most striking examples is her silence on the racist discrimination and violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Burma. She has also avoided criticizing the Burmese army’s brutal war in Kachin state against Kachin ethnic rebels fighting for a degree of autonomy from a government that has long tried to assimilate them by force. Her position has outraged many ethnic minority groups that once lent their support to the Lady in her fight against the military junta. Again and again, I heard the refrain from the activists of my youth: We cannot give up the principles for which we have fought for so long. Otherwise, what do we even stand for anymore?

But though her stature among political elites and intellectuals is dwindling, Aung San Suu Kyi is still highly popular among the general public. In teahouses and on the street, I was struck by how many people with whom I spoke still seem to expect the solutions to our political problems to come from great heroes like Aung San Suu Kyi or current President Thein Sein — not from institutions. And I realized that it’s something uniquely rooted in Burmese history and our Buddhist tradition. We are looking to “the good king” as the panacea for all the country’s chronic ills. But there is no good king.

AFTER A WEEK or so in Rangoon, my family and I traveled north to Bagan, one of the centers of ancient Burmese civilization. Founded in the 11th century by King Anawrahta, this is where Theravada Buddhism, the national religion, took root in central Burma. It’s a vast plain of red earth, low trees, and scrub brush, dotted with upwards of 2,200 gracefully decaying pagodas and temples. Modern-day Burma is still very much under the spell of Bagan, both in terms of political culture and religious practice. Perhaps it’s here, in this landscape ruled by outsized kings and legendary warriors, that you can understand why the cult of the great leader still shapes Burma today.

As the sun began to set, we wandered into the 11th-century Manuha Temple, built by a king defeated in war by Anawrahta. With the permission of the victor, who had taken him prisoner, King Manuha built a temple filled with four massive gold Buddhas enclosed in spaces much too small for them. They fill the cramped interiors, leaving barely enough room for visitors to sit and pray. They are said to represent the feeling of being under detention, and when you enter, it’s true: The claustrophobia of captivity was palpable. I thought about my friend, Thet Win Aung, and his long, cruel years in a cramped, barren cell. And I looked up at the shimmering gold Buddha and wondered about our new political gods: Do they still imprison my people, not in jails, but by crowding out everything else?

At the temple’s dedication almost 1,000 years ago, the vanquished King Manuha prayed, “Wherever I travel in the cycle of rebirth, may I never again be the prisoner of another.” I said a prayer of my own: that we, the Burmese people, may never again be the prisoners of tyrants — democrats or otherwise.

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