An exile returns to Burma

By Chi Liquicia

Imagine returning to your home after 24 years, years spent in exile, unable to communicate freely with friends and family.

Familiar sight. The Shwedagon pagoda, built 2,600 years ago. (Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)

That was where Aung Zaw found himself when he returned to Burma recently. Aung Zaw edits The Irrawaddy, a magazine dedicated to covering Burma, from a base in Thailand. He came back thanks to relaxed travel restrictions and political reforms begun several month sago. Business leaders, diplomats and tourists have preceded him, but he is no ordinary tourist looking to see the Shwedagon pagoda. Aung Zan fled in 1988, when the military cracked down on students and dissidents. He is thinking about whether he can bring his publication back across the border.

One official he meets with holds up a copy of The Irrawaddy and wonders how many years in jail being caught with it would have cost him just a few months earlier. That’s a good sign. So is the behavior of tourists, who now routinely stop at the headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, where before they could only take pictures from passing vehicles.

Other signs give him pause. He goes by his university, Rangoon University and finds it still abandoned.

He receives a warm reception from a senior government censor. “It was a bit of a surreal experience, since we usually derided the press censorship board in our publication. And yet, there I was, sitting and speaking with a senior censorship official in his office,” he writes.

He concludes in his five-day trip that Burma’s reforms need more time to take hold. It is not yet ready for unfettered press freedom. Getting any story straight right now is difficult, he found.

Aung Zaw in 2008, with then-U.S. President George W. Bush. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

“During my trip, I also noticed that no matter what the subject of discussion, there were always very different versions of what was really going on behind the scenes. Whether we were talking about the supposed split between reformists and hardliners, the influence of retired generals or any other subject, my interlocutor — senior officials, editors, diplomats and other well-informed individual — often offered wildly different interpretations of the “true story.”

For more of his fascinating return, follow the link below:


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