Living Uncertainly in Exile [Irrawaddy Commentary]

19 January 2008

[Source - Irrawaddy]
By Aung Zaw
January 16, 2008

Last week, I received a sad message from a colleague in Bangkok. “My mother died of a brain tumor in Rangoon hospital.”

The former political prisoner, who now lives in Bangkok, missed the funeral of his beloved mother.

If he had returned home for the funeral he risked being imprisoned again. After spending nearly 10 years in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, he didn’t want to repeat the experience. So he went to a Bangkok temple and prayed for his late mother.

Several of my colleagues who were forced to live in exile are longing to return home. They miss loved ones and family members whom they haven’t seen for decades. Like my colleague in Bangkok, some of them have also missed the funerals of dead parents, relatives and friends.

Burma’s political stagnation and military rule have resulted in ever-increasing numbers of Burmese fleeing the country into exile.

Many of my friends who left Burma after their involvement in the 1988 uprising have sad stories to share.

My younger brother and I both missed our mother’s funeral when she passed away in 1994. My brother was in prison after being sentenced unjustly for his involvement in student activism, and I could not return home from exile. If I had, it would probably have been the end of my career and perhaps my life. The military intelligence officers who constantly monitored our house would have happily locked me up.

On the day of our mother’s funeral, I spoke on the phone with one close relative, who told me “Please, do not come back, it is not safe to come back here.” The line was then cut.

I later received a letter from my grandmother saying the funeral was well attended. She also told me: “You don’t have to come back”. I understood that she didn’t want to see me in prison.

Many of my Burmese colleagues living in exile in the West quietly return to Thailand where they arrange meetings with family members from Burma. They spend a few days or weeks together and then say emotional farewells—perhaps for ever.

Since the 1962 military coup, many Burmese have left the country and are now waiting for the chance to go home. Large exile communities live in Thailand, the US and Europe.

The democracy uprising in 1988 provided them with a glimmer of hope of returning home soon. I remember some prominent faces and names. Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu, both then in their early 30s, went into exile in 1969, together with former Prime Minister U Nu, and returned from the US to Thailand in 1988 to assist the pro-democracy movement along the border. They both died in Thailand without ever having the chance of seeing a democratic Burma.

Shan scholar Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, son of Sao Shwe Thaike, Burma’s first president, and his friend Khun Kyar Nu, also died in exile.

On the border, Karen leader Gen Saw Bo Mya, Brig-Gen Maung Maung and Gen Shwe Sai, who were active in the Karen armed struggle and led the Karen fight against the Burmese army for several decades, have gone.

In 2007, we lost our beloved poet laureate Tin Moe, who spent time in Insein prison and finally left Burma in 1999. Tin Moe was one of Burma’s most respected poets and was hated by the regime. He passed away in California. I am sure he wanted to spend his last days at home in Burma.

Life in exile is full of uncertainty. It is not easy to live and stay in a foreign land while hoping to return home. The anxiety, false hopes, fears, anguish, struggles and deep depression dominate daily life in exile. But, like many Burmese, I never feel I have left my country. Dreams of my hometown, school days, the faces of friends and the good old times always return to me in my dreams.

Many exiled Burmese realize that change is not coming soon and some are skeptical about seeing change in their lifetime. When students and activists arrived on the border in 1988, they were hopeful that change was imminent, and their optimism was widely shared by senior exiled Burmese like Ye Kyaw Thu and Tin Maung Win and ethnic leaders along the border. The simple reason was that they all loved their homeland and missed it.

But now I wonder if that optimism is still shared among Burmese who left in 1988. Many have migrated to western countries and have lost touch with the movement inside the country and on the border.

But the recent September uprising in Burma did offer a return of faint hope and a reason to be optimistic even though the regime is unyielding. That faint hope, I am sure, is felt throughout the exiled Burmese community.

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