Going Home: Exiles Venture Back to Build a ‘New Burma’

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Soe Than Win / AFP / Getty Images

Aung Naing Oo is greeted by relatives upon his return to his homeland for the first time at Yangon international airport on February 10, 2012.

He went from protesting on the streets of Rangoon in 1988, to a guerrilla camp on the Thai-Burma border, to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Now,  Aung Naing Oo, a policy analyst, peace advocate and development worker, has returned to Burma for the first time since he fled a military crackdown 24 years ago. His first steps onto Burmese soil at Rangoon’s international airport this morning in some ways herald his country’s tentative steps toward reconciliation and reform after half a century of military rule.  Aung Naing Oo said he was nervous about the trip, but did not fear for his personal safety. “My fear is that I am expecting to see the Burma I knew 24 years ago. That Burma is probably no longer, and I will have to adjust to a new Burma,’’ he said.

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The world is still adjusting to this new Burma. When a nominally civilian government came to power last year through elections most observers regarded as rigged and a sham, few believed real change was coming. Since then, President Thein Sein has released Aung San Suu Kyi and some other political prisoners, and has allowed the Nobel laureate to run for elected office. He has pursued ceasefires with several warring ethnic rebel groups and unshackled the heavily censored Burmese media.

Still, there are those who, with reasonable cause, doubt the new Burma is genuine. In their view, small and limited reforms are the government’s sops to Western nations in the hope they will lift economic sanctions. Or, even if Thein Sein is sincere, they fear regressive elements in the government will ultimately gain the upper hand, reverse course and crush the hopes of the people. Their doubts were underscored Friday morning by reports that Gambira, a Buddhist monk who led thousands of his brethren in peaceful protests in 2007 and was subsequently imprisoned, was detained again by the authorities less than one month after being released.

That news would not necessarily surprise Aung Naing Oo. Burma is embarking on a difficult transformation that will take at least a decade, and some setbacks can be expected, he said. “It took Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia a long time to transition to something approaching full-blown democracy and rule of law. We can not leap frog their experiences. We are not unique,’’ he said.

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While regressive elements are a threat to reform, so is the lack of capacity among those in the government and civil society attempting to institute reform, according to Aung Naing Oo. And that’s why he and the three other founding members of his Vahu Development Institute, an NGO that does policy research, advocacy and training, are going back. Known as the “Harvard Mafia” because they all graduated from the prestigious university, they want to lend their expertise both to government and civil society.

Others among the Burmese diaspora are also needed, he says, such as doctors, lawyers and engineers. But he understands the reticence others may have in contemplating a return. He urges them to simply make a visit and come to their own conclusions. He has faith that many will eventually join in the efforts, because they are not so different from him. “I left my country physically 24 years ago,’’ he says. “But psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, I never left.”

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