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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Visiting the Country of Change, Part 3

Masashi Yamaguchi

Apr. 20, 2016

Activists who fled Myanmar during its military crackdown have been closely watching their nation’s path towards democracy. Some are beginning to return home, hoping to use their experience overseas to rebuild the nation they were forced to leave behind.

When Myanmar's new president and his cabinet ministers were sworn in last month, 52-year-old Kyaw Kyaw Soe watched the ceremony on the news in Japan. After living in exile in Japan for 25 years, he said, “I'm very happy. This is a victory for all the people in Myanmar”.

In 1988, Kyaw Kyaw Soe participated in pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar. The protesters came under attack by soldiers sent by the military government, and several thousand people were reportedly killed. Seeing his friends get arrested one after another prompted Kyaw Kyaw Soe to flee to Japan in 1991. "I came to Japan carrying just one bag,” he recalls.

Kyaw Kyaw Soe ran a Burmese restaurant in Tokyo, believing he would never be able to return to his native country. But ahead of this year’s historic government changeover, he made up his mind to go back and get involved in efforts to rebuild.

Just before the new administration took office, Kyaw Kyaw Soe flew to Myanmar. It was the first time in a quarter century he had set foot in his own country. "This heat. This smell,” he said as he returned home. “This is Burma, that's what I've been waiting for to come back to Burma. It takes nearly 25 years but I am very satisfied."

His joy was short-lived when he saw how little Myanmar had changed. He came to realize that his long-held dream for his nation’s renewal will take time to fulfill. As he traveled through the city, he saw people jostling in front of elevators, without forming lines. It was a picture of confusion. “I told them to wait in two lines. They didn't listen. In Japan, this is not normal,” said Kyaw Kyaw Soe.

At his alma mater, the University of Yangon, he was reminded again that his country is lagging behind. The military government partially closed the highest institution of learning, saying it was the base of the pro-democracy movement. “The military government didn't think education is important. They didn't care,” says Kyaw Kyaw Soe.

He plans to open a school of his own to give children a good education and has earmarked his mother-in-law's garage as a potential schoolhouse. Kyaw Kyaw Soe hopes to teach some of the things he learned in Japan, such as the importance of social order and manners.

“We'd like to change this society,” he says of the work ahead for himself and other returnees. “We have, therefore, to create an environment that will give opportunities to children. That's our job, our responsibility."

During the long period of military rule, little was done to improve infrastructure. That is another area where people are working for change. Thaung Hlaing returned to Myanmar two years ago after 15 years in Japan. He joined the National League for Democracy, the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thaung Hlaing helps to dig wells in farming areas, where many villages lack access to running water. Some people rely on rainwater they collect in and he wants to change that. "I remind myself every day that I have to use the experiences I gained in Japan and do what I can so Myanmar will change,” he says.


Kyaw Kyaw Soe, who was granted refugee status in Japan in 1998, supports Myanmar’s move towards democracy. He joined Newsroom Tokyo presenters Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: I understand that many people who fled Myanmar came to Japan. How many people came, and what are they doing now?

Kyaw Kyaw Soe: Over 10,000 people from Myanmar live in Japan now. A few hundred people are granted refugee status each year. Some of the political activists have returned to Myanmar, and some have had a chance to return recently, like me. Some people, with marriage and kids, and health reasons, they cannot go back to Myanmar.

Beppu: As we saw, one of your aims is to change society in Myanmar. Education is one focus, and you are planning to build school. Will your experience in Japan help?

Kyaw Kyaw Soe: To establish a democratic country, education is very important. We must have human resources, so education is a key factor. In Myanmar, many children cannot go to school, and also, they drop out of school. One of the best things I have learned about education in Japan is the school lunch system that gives children proper nutrition. That’s something to work towards in Myanmar. I intend to focus on education, and also I intend to work in politics.

Beppu: You were in your 20s when you left Myanmar for Japan. 25 years is a long time to be away from your country. Do you feel that you lost your precious youth by moving away?

Kyaw Kyaw Soe: Yes, we used to live in Yangon, in a big family house. But the situation changed after 1988. One of my brothers fled to New Zealand, me to Japan, and another one to France. We cannot be reunited like it was before. During those 25 years, I lost my parents. This a really sad thing, but I do not regret moving away. We have been fighting and struggling for 25 years and now our country has a chance to change. I can contribute to build a new country, not only in education, but politics also.

Beppu: You sound upbeat about the idea of going back home, but still you must have some concerns?

Kyaw Kyaw Soe: Yes. We have struggled for many years and that means we are working for the future. Not only me, but also my friends and colleagues in the US and Europe, if we have a chance to go back we can rebuild our new country. It’s not an easy task, because one of the biggest problems is the constitution. I think all of the people in Burma have to participate to change the constitution. It’s not an easy task, but we must overcome.