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Burma's Exiled Activists Consider Returning Home


Steve Sandford

CHIANGMAI, Thailand - During decades of political repression in Burma, many activists fled abroad, building lives in exile while working for democratic change. Despite Burma's political reforms over the past year, many remain reluctant to move back.

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Political crackdowns were the once-defining images of Burma's notorious military regime. Since 1988, thousands of civilians were killed or thrown in prison. Many more escaped abroad.

Activist Khin Ohmar has been living in exile in Thailand for the past 23 years, but she says she is not ready to head back.

"I really want to be a part of the process where driving the process to be a genuine democratic transition, but it is still really hard to know if this is really the right time to go back," she said. "If we say things that aren't pleasing them, we can still be in trouble... the government needs a clear policy that there is a general amnesty to all of us outside the country that our safety is guaranteed."

In 1988, student activist Salai Ya Awng was a rebel commander fighting against Burmese troops. In the years that followed, his father and brother were thrown in jail because of their political activities, leaving Salai with bitter memories.

"My father was elected as an MP in 1990," recalled Salai. "He was an NLD [National League for Democracy] member. He died in prison in 1998. He was arrested and sentenced to prison for 11 years. The prison authorities tortured him."

Years in exile have meant profound changes. Many people have raised families and grown older without ever seeing their homeland. Salai says while his family has made him more careful, he is still committed to his cause.

"Now my life has changed because we got a baby… Before that, I didn't care," he added. "What I wanted I could do. Now I have to think about my son's future - what would they do without me if I die? So I have to think. But still I am working on the democratic movement."

Salai says he is still waiting and watching before he decides whether to take his family back to the country of his youth.

"We haven't got peace yet," said Salai. "Some people say some things have changed already in Burma, but it is not real change. We have to wait and see."

For Salai and many others, Burma has not yet changed enough to return home.

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