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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Journey Back to Myanmar

Thiha Thwe

Jun. 15, 2016

A Burmese couple who fled to Japan recently returned to their home country for the first time in a quarter of a century.

A new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi's party took office there in March. Under the previous military rule, many young people fled the country to seek asylum overseas.

The couple from Japan has finally been able to return there for a month-long visit.

Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da run a restaurant near Tokyo. They weren't able to return to their home country since moving to Japan in the early 1990s.

In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi was leader of the youth movement committed to bringing democracy to the country. The couple, who were students at the time, risked their lives fighting for freedom.

But as the oppression intensified, they felt they had no choice but to leave the country. They fell in love and got married in Japan -- a country where they had friends to support them.

From their base in Tokyo, they continued to support Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, or NLD.

Through social networking, the couple has closely been connected with young members of the NLD and, has been working with them in aid projects, including helping disadvantaged children attend school.

"Burma needs to cultivate future leaders, just like Aung San Suu Kyi. Every citizen really needs to work toward this," Ma Thi Da sais.

"I've been involved in student activities. I'm 51 years old now. But the people expected to help Burma develop in the future must be young," Win Kyaw said. "I'm always thinking about what our generation can do for them."

Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da finally returned to Yangon in May, after the democratic government took charge.

"We want to thank everyone for making our trip home possible," Ma Thi Da said.

Win Kyaw came back to Myanmar for the first time in 26 years, and his wife, Ma Thida, 25 years ago. They were met at the airport by friends with whom they had fought for democracy.

"I'm happy but also sad because I can't get back these 26 years away from my country," Win Kyaw said.

The first thing they did back in Myanmar was to visit Win Kyaw's parents. It was the first time Ma Thi Da had met her mother-in-law.

"I can't find words to describe my feelings. I'm overwhelmed," said Aye Paik, Win Kyaw's mother.

They also visited Ma Thi Da's home. The first floor has been turned into a cafe while she was away.

"It's been 25 years since I left. I never dreamed that I'd ever be able to come back. I'm shaking," Ma Thi Da said.

The couple also met young NLD activists they had contacted online from Japan. The group discussed how best to serve the democratic movement.

"This is the first time to meet them, but we've already connected online, so it feels like a family reunion," said NLD youth activist San Tun Lwin.

San Tun Lwin teaches math and chemistry at a cram school. On weekends he visits slums and villages, where education is poor. With other members of the NLD, he delivers food and clothes to children here. He made contact with Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da 2 years ago.

"What we need is knowledge about the best systems used overseas. We have constantly been told that we should strive to create a system that can be handed over to the next generation," San Tun Lwin, an NLD youth activist.

Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da decided to travel around the country to share their experiences from Japan with the NLD youth members. Although they were excited to be back home, the couple found the country changed.

They were disappointed to see litter lying around. Under military rule, little effort was made to tackle environmental issues. Work to overcome the problems has started only now, under democratic rule.

"It wasn’t like this when we lived here. We used to cleaned up every week," Ma Thi Da said.

The couple hopes that the young people can find solutions to problems like this.

They gave a talk to local university students in Mon State in Southeastern Myanmar. They encouraged the students to find ways to improve their country by thinking independently and seeking solutions to problems, starting with the smaller issues.

"In Burma, education means rote learning. But in Japan, education is aimed at giving children the ability to think and act by themselves," Win Kyaw said. "There’s a lot of work to be done in building our nation."

The couple continued their efforts through the rainy season. The students listened intently, gaining a fresh perspective on their role in rebuilding Myanmar.

"I’d like to gather opinions and ideas to help us figure out what we can learn from abroad and then decide what we can do to promote democracy,” said student Tint Htoo Aung.

Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da traveled to about 20 towns and cities, giving lectures and donating school supplies during their time in Myanmar.

To build the democratic nation, the couple also strongly believes in the importance of education for all.

They visited a children's home in Kyaukse, near Mandalay in central Myanmar. Many children at the facility missed out on an education due to decades of civil war. Some lost their parents in the conflict, while others escaped only to be forced into becoming child soldiers.

The room had no air conditioning, but was still packed with children.

"They say it's fun, but it's too hot in here. This would be unimaginable in Japan," Win Kyaw said.

The couple plans to work to find ways to improve the situation in Myanmar, together with their colleagues in Japan.

Before returning to Japan, Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da visited places filled with memories of the fight for democracy. They went to Inya Lake, where many students were beaten to death and drowned by the police at the time of the democratic movement.

"We tried to fight together," Ma Thi Da said. "Some of us managed to escape, but others were killed. I think more people were killed than escaped."

"I want to show the people who lost their lives here that we’re working hard. We’ve been fighting for them, too. I want them to rest in peace," Win Kyaw said tearfully.

As they work to rebuild their home country, Win Kyaw and Ma Thi Da remain committed to their lifelong mission of helping children across Myanmar receive an education and secure the future of their homeland.