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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Visiting the Country of Change, Part 1

Apr. 18, 2016

A group of high school students visited Myanmar in March to meet with fellow students there, and to exchange views on the country now that decades of military rule have come to an end.

A month before the tour began, a Burmese couple was invited to meet the students at a high school. The pupils wanted to hear firsthand about the recent history of Myanmar, once known as Burma.

For decades, the country was ruled by the military, and Western countries including the US placed sanctions on it.

Win Kyaw and his wife, Ma Thi Da, have been living in Japan for more than 20 years.

"Japan is a peaceful country now, but ours is not," Win Kyaw says. "The most important thing is for us to work toward becoming a peaceful nation again."

Their lecture to the students took 2 hours, and the couple’s message to the youth left a strong impact on them. By sharing their experiences, the couple hopes to help younger generations shape their own futures.

In 1988, what began as a protest against the military regime developed into a youth movement for democracy. Some students were shot dead by security forces. One of Win Kyaw's friends was killed in the demonstrations.

"We students demanded that the military dictatorship be replaced by a democratic regime," Win Kyaw says. "We demanded freedom, we thought we could change the situation by being passionate and forceful. Amid the demonstrations, my friend was killed on Mar. 13, 1988."

Ma Thi Da also participated in the pro-democracy movement around the same time, and was imprisoned twice by the military regime.

She was one of the key figures who pleaded with Suu Kyi to become the leader of the movement when Suu Kyi returned from the UK to take care of her mother.

Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da both managed to escape from military oppression and began lives with the special permission of residence in Japan. Later, they met and married.

They founded the Japanese branch of the National League for Democracy, or NLD. Since then, they have never been allowed to return to their homeland.

While running a restaurant, they have been communicating regularly with members of the NLD Youth Members in Myanmar, and have devoted themselves to supporting education in their country.

"You have to defend your country and yourself on your own," Ma Thi Da says. "Don't assume that your parents will always look after you."

In 2013, they met Suu Kyi for the first time in 23 years, during her visit to Japan.

"I used to be involved in pro-democracy movement, but I'm 51 now," Win Kyaw says. "Young people have to protect the country in the future. So, I've been thinking all the time about how to pass this movement on to the next generation."

Yukari and Yuka Yamazaki are twin sisters who are especially enthusiastic about going to Myanmar. They were born to a Japanese father and a Burmese mother, and they grew up in Japan.

When they were 6, their parents divorced and their mother, Ukuru Lu, tried to raise them. But, facing poor health, she had to move them to a children's care center until they were 15.

The sisters have since moved back with their mother. They worked hard to get scholarships and have enrolled in high school.

Ukuru Lu is from the Kachin tribe, one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. They started to attend church with their Christian mother and grew more interested in their roots.

Last year, the sisters visited their mother's hometown to take care of their grandmother who was ill. During the trip, they were able to visit an orphanage where their aunt works. Many orphans whose parents were killed during the long-lasting civil war are living there.

During her visit with these children living in harsh conditions, Yukari noticed something.

"When we were living in our care center in Japan, we wanted to leave as soon as possible. I expected children in Myanmar to feel the same way, but they have accepted the orphanage as their home, and I saw them laughing a lot," she says. "In the end, I came to realize that my feelings were hollow, and I felt a large void inside me."

When the sisters returned home, they started to learn the Burmese language. Meeting those orphans made them realize the importance of living with hope. They once felt uncertain about the future but now they have a dream of starting their own orphanage in Myanmar.

“During this tour, I want to strengthen my resolve. Right now, it’s a dream, but how should I put it? I believe it’s a dream that can come true. I want to find out how I can be of service in Myanmar,” Yukari says.

Bernard Barton is the chairman of the board at the school and is in charge of the study tour in Myanmar.

“I hope that when they come to Myanmar, they see the changes that have been made in this country, they realize that becoming active in the political process is what makes change happen," he says.

When the students’ 5-day study tour began, they were welcomed warmly by local high school students supported by the NLD Youth Members.

The 2 groups get to know each other by seeking out common interests and topics. The twin sisters also had fun speaking in Burmese.

“I want them to see that the people of Myanmar are struggling for survival in everyday life, and good education is not yet within reach,” says San Htun Lwin, an NLD youth member.

In Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, there are plenty of construction sites. How do young people view rapid economic growth and the democratization of Myanmar?

The Japanese students had a chance to speak with local high school students about the politics and the education systems of both countries.

“I think democracy implies freedom. What does freedom mean to you?” Yukari asks.

"Well, for example, if I wanted to study different subjects at school, my parents could stop me. I think students should be free to choose what they want to study,” a Burmese student replies.

"What does freedom mean in Japan?" asks another.

"Not having freedom means having only one path and being compelled to follow that path. But freedom is having many paths and being able to choose the one that I want to take," Yukari says.

Shune Lae Honey, 18, lives with her parents and a sister. Her family makes a living by selling wholesale celebratory gift items at a local market. The family is considered middle class in Myanmar with a monthly income of $600.

Shune Lae Honey’s parents supported Suu Kyi's belief that democracy is more important than anything. Her parents taught her the importance of thinking and acting for herself.

She plans to work as a care worker once she graduates from high school, but recently, Shune Lae has begun to dream of attending university.

“I have fun studying because I can access information not only about Myanmar but also about the world," she says.

Shune Lae is getting access to information from all over the world by using her mobile phone. She is interested in both domestic and foreign politics. One day, she hopes to be a person like Suu Kyi who changes the world with bravery.

"Even if I don’t become like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I plan to participate in politics and have a career that enables me to help people," Shune Lae says.

"Until now, studying has meant learning things by memory. I want to have an education like in Japan, where I can learn to assert my opinions," says another Burmese student.

"In Burma, we don’t have many chances to express our opinions to others. Even now, speaking in public makes me so nervous that it’s hard to express myself well."

"How do you think you can contribute to your country and its politics as a woman?" Yukari asks.

"By having a strong spirit," one Burmese student says. "That way, I can do things that men cannot do. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the very person who can do it, and I greatly admire her."

The students stopped in front of Aung San Suu Kyi’s family home as part of their tour. Every citizen of Myanmar knows this house. For many years, the iron-barred gate out front was the symbol of oppression.

Even though Suu Kyi lost her freedom under military rule, she has been inspiring the people of Myanmar from right here.

“I will proceed while consulting with all those of you who believe in democracy,” she told her supporters there in November 2010, when she was freed after enduring a total of 15 years of house arrest.

“Seeing the actual place showed me how hard it would be to be locked in here and inspire people to fight for freedom," says Ayu Yamamoto, one of the Japanese students on the tour. "Aung San Suu Kyi really did an amazing thing.”

Yukari and Yuka Yamazaki also have another motive for participating in the tour. They’re trying to work out what they can do to realize their goal of setting up an orphanage in their second home of Myanmar.

They visit children living in the slums, and their journey will continue.