In the late 1980s and mid-1990s, Aung Gyi Lwin was the personal assistant of Aung San Suu Kyi as she led political opposition to the Burmese military regime. Aung Gyi Lwin’s close ties to the leader twice landed him in jail. When military authorities threatened a third imprisonment, he left for exile in the U.S.
Now, after Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party won a landslide victory in Burma’s November elections, 57-year-old Aung Gyi Lwin has revived a longstanding dream: to return to the homeland he fled 18 years ago.
“I want to go back to my country,” Aung Gyi Lwin said. “I love my country.”
Burma’s first free elections in 25 years have brought hope to Burmese political dissidents and others who escaped the regime and found asylum in the U.S. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a historic majority in Parliament, and Burma’s next president will be chosen from the party. But Aung Gyi Lwin and others in the diaspora have found that returning home to a politically changed country turns out not to be an easy decision.
“We have settled here already,” said Mya Mya Soe, who married Aung Gyi Lwin in the U.S. Mya Mya Soe knows her husband wants to go back to help build democracy in Burma, but “You still have to think about your family.”
That includes their son, 7, who was born in the U.S.
Mya Mya Soe knows that if Aung San Suu Kyi summons her husband to return, “he will.” And even if there is no direct word from the leader, she expects her husband will “look for the right moment to return.” But whatever her husband decides to do, Mya Mya Soe said she would remain in the U.S. with their son, at least until he graduates from college, and might only go back once in a while to help.
Wé Wé Naing, 50, is another New York-based Burmese exile. She’s lived in the U.S. 16 years but never let go of a dream to return home; she postponed applying for U.S. citizenship so that she could cast a ballot for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party last month.
But Wé Wé Naing hasn’t bought a ticket back to her homeland yet. She has a secure job as a finance associate with the United Nations’ development program in New York, a position that could be hard to give up to go back to Burma, where she dreams of founding an educational, non-governmental organization.
Right now, conditions still don’t exist to create that NGO, said Wé Wé Naing. “Once the government transferred their power, once she [Aung San Suu Kyi] started doing things, we can go back,” she said. “Maybe within six months, maybe a year.”
Nay Tin Myint, chairman of the NLD in the U.S., is perhaps even more cautious.
As one of the student leaders in a 1988 uprising against the regime, Nay Tin Myint was jailed for 16 years in Burma. Eventually he was able to flee to the Thai-Burma border and then won refugee status to move to the U.S. in 2008. Two years ago, a Burmese official in the U.S. told him that his name was still on a “watch list,” and until he knows that’s changed, he says, he fears returning home could prompt a new arrest by the military.
Still, some Burmese exiles had already returned home before the elections. More will soon, predicted Nay Tin Myint, who hopes to run for a seat in parliament – but right now would be blocked from doing so by a constitutional ban on candidates who have not lived in Burma for the past five years.
“To most of the Burmese in the United States, they don’t want to live here for long,” said Nay Tin Myint. “Our motherland is Burma.”
Some other exiles from Burma have no current thoughts about return. Political parties tied to ethnic minorities did “terribly” in the November elections, said Jeffrey Stein, a program associate with the Open Society Burma Project.
“That leads to a scary situation to some of these groups,” said Stein. “Because they don’t know whether or not the NLD will really be looking after their interests.”
Of particular concern are the country’s Rohingya Muslims, who suffered severely under the military regime in Buddhist Burma. Both the military leaders and their chief opponent, Aung San Suu Kyi, are from Burma’s dominant Bamar ethnic group. Despite her international acclaim in peacefully defying the military for decades, Aung San Suu Kyi has also been criticized for not speaking out more forcefully on behalf of persecuted minority groups.
After the NLD’s victory last month, party spokesman U Win Htein told a reporter for the Telegraph that the plight of the Rohingya population “was not top of the agenda” for his party. Human rights activists and others continue to call for a new policy, though. A recent Huffington Post article called the issue of how Rohingya are treated under Burma’s new government a “litmus test for a legitimate democracy.”