Members of the Burmese diaspora are returning home and finding their footing in a new, somewhat more open society
June 8, 2015 5:30AM ET
by Joseph Schatz
YANGON, Myanmar — Tony Ohn doesn’t blink as the lights suddenly go out in his 12th-floor office at Parami Hospital, a private clinic where the 55-year-old physician is heading up a new emergency medicine department.
The generator will kick in momentarily, and after all, frequent power shortages are just part of life in Myanmar, a country that was still named Burma and was under a military dictatorship in 1988, when Ohn left home to seek a career in the United States. The days of overt military rule are over. He has returned to be near his aging parents and to help improve his native country’s creaky health infrastructure as Myanmar undergoes a tenuous transition to democracy.
Parami is one of Yangon’s most advanced medical clinics, but it’s still a far cry from the Palmdale Regional Medical Center in northern Los Angeles County, where Ohn lived for much of the last decade. He returns to Los Angeles four times a year to do medical rotations and to help pay the mortgages on the houses he and his wife, also from Myanmar, own in Illinois and California.
After more than 20 years living in the United States, America is home — but so is Myanmar.
Ohn’s story is unique but not uncommon in post-junta Myanmar. Take a close look at many of the medical clinics, tech startups, upscale restaurants, civil society groups and financial firms doing business there these days and you’ll likely find at least one repatriate — or repat, as they’re often called — a returning member of the large Burmese diaspora that left for Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, the United States or Europe during the years of repressive military rule that began in 1962 and eased only in 2011. By most estimates, there are somewhere north of 5 million Myanmar natives living abroad.
The country’s opening to the world in 2011 has prompted thousands of native sons and daughters to return, though there is no exact count. They come with a mix of backgrounds and motives. There are entrepreneurs hoping to build businesses in a frontier economy where they speak the language, development workers, former ethnic rebels and student activists. Some of the student activists were invited back as advisers by the quasi-civilian government to help it modernize; others remain harshly critical of the former generals who still control the levers of power.
Many straddle two worlds, keeping one foot in the country of their birth and one in their adopted homeland. Their new countries are often more prosperous, and if things go sour in Myanmar’s national elections this November — the first since the end of military rule — there’s nothing stopping repats from leaving, especially since many still have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed abroad. A number of them have taken major pay cuts to live in a country with one of Asia’s poorest educational and health systems.
“I came back because of my parents and because we had no children. If we had children, I would not [have] come back,” says Ohn, noting that most of his former classmates from Myanmar who still live overseas aren’t ready to return. Those who do, he says, often don’t last long. “The trend is people coming back and after two to three years they get frustrated and go back.”
As the son of an army engineer in a military-dominated society, Ohn had a certain amount of privilege growing up in poor, military-ruled Burma in the 1960s and ’70s. But he grew frustrated with the Burmese way to socialism imposed by the military and even penned a critical letter to the former dictator Gen. Ne Win at one point. Perhaps luckily, he received no response.
“I didn’t like the system, and I wanted a way out,” he says, and with his father’s blessing, he left home, studying in England and then making a life in the United States for two decades.
Many others left amid more perilous circumstances, as political refugees. While the quasi-civilian government that took hold in 2011 says it wants Myanmar natives to return home to help rebuild the economy and end old ethnic battles, it hasn’t always made that easy. That’s particularly true for opposition political activists who were exiled to the United States or other Western countries and became vocal critics of the regime. These people often earned spots on the former junta’s infamous blacklist and effectively lost their citizenship.
Aung Myo Min, the head of Equity Myanmar, a local human rights group, left as a political exile after the 1988 student protests that led to a military crackdown and international isolation and spent years opposing the government from Thailand. He was removed from the blacklist and is now back in Yangon — but he’s still waiting to have his citizenship reinstated.
“Our country is very good at kicking people out, but they don’t know how to welcome people back,” he says, laughing.
Things are somewhat easier in the business sector, where many younger repats have carved out roles as entrepreneurs, financial experts and liaisons for the Western companies that have moved into Myanmar since the easing of U.S. and EU sanctions. While repats bring skills and international experience, fitting in often requires adapting.
“You are both foreign and local at the same time,” says Htet Myet Oo, who, along with three partners, opened the Rangoon Tea House last year in downtown Yangon. It offers upscale, gourmet takes on traditional Myanmar street food, like the ubiquitous mohinga, a type of fish-based noodle soup.
Htet Myet Oo’s parents, both doctors, left Burma when he was 4 years old to settle in the U.K., where he grew up and went to university, visiting Burma every year or two on family vacations. With the idea of returning always in the back of his mind, he moved back after college and at first worked with the nonprofit Yangon Heritage Trust, a historical preservation group, and used his savings to import cars. Though new to the car trade, he competed with seasoned salesmen and learned about how entrepreneurial hustle works in Myanmar, a country where business — both large and small — remains largely informal. “Contracts mean less, and verbal agreements mean more,” he says.
Dealing with local bureaucracy is a hassle, but the restaurant came together in less than a year, more quickly than it might have in a Western city, he admits.
In Myanmar’s business world, the most effective repatriates are the ones who can use their training, language and cultural skills to be intermediaries between foreign and local business officials, says Jessica Thiri Aung, 28, who works at a foreign-owned private equity firm in Yangon.
Aung, an ethnic-Chinese woman whose family has been in Burma for three generations, was sent to high school and college in Singapore to escape long-standing laws in Myanmar that limited educational options for ethnic-Chinese women. Many in Myanmar’s Chinese population, whose businesses were nationalized by the military in the 1960s, left the country during the years of military rule.
She returned to be with her aging parents, whose outlook is more in line with Myanmar’s conservative culture. “I have a curfew of 9:30 p.m.,” she says with a smile as she prepares to meet her friends, a group consisting mostly of foreign expatriates. Despite these limitations, she sees working in Myanmar’s burgeoning investment field as a stepping stone in her career.
Repatriates say that their skills and contributions are respected and eagerly sought out by locals. But there are tensions between those who stayed and those who left, particularly when it comes to the issue of Myanmar’s political transition.
Andrew Lian, an attorney and a member of the largely Christian Chin ethnic group, one of many that have taken up arms against the central government since independence in 1948, fought the government for years before finding his way to the United States. He settled in Indiana, home to many Chin refugees and roughly 7,000 of the nearly 100,000 Myanmar-born people who were residing in the United States as of 2013, according to U.S. census data.
Lian got plenty of flak from his former comrades when he returned to Myanmar in 2013 to work with the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center to help negotiate a cease-fire with rebel groups. They saw him as a traitor, he says.
He took his wife, who is also Chin, and their two U.S.-born children to live in Myanmar last year. But it has been difficult, he says, especially amid concerns such as the uncertain quality of food and medicine. “It says it’s FDA approved,” he says with a smile, “but what sort of FDA — the Myanmar FDA or the U.S. FDA?”
He worries about whether the peace process will continue when a new government takes office after this year’s elections. Yet he’s proud of the progress that has been made.
Some returning activists, however, have kept their distance from the government, choosing instead to test the boundaries of its political reforms. Khin Ohmar did just that, and now she finds herself back on the outside.
Finding new footing
When Ohmar was a senior at Rangoon University, like many other students who participated in the bloody 1988 protests, she and her colleagues were pursued by Burma’s military intelligence unit. They fled to rebel-held territory on the border with Thailand, where they bonded with the ethic minority Mon people over shared anti-government views. She applied to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok for political asylum, was resettled in the United States in 1990 and eventually became an American citizen. She studied in western Massachusetts and made her way to Washington, D.C., where she became well versed in the tactics of the exile activist, even testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1995.
In 1998, Ohmar returned to the Thai side of the Thailand-Burma border and founded the Burma Partnership, a civil society group. Fourteen years later, as the new quasi-civilian government made overtures to blacklisted exile activists to return, she took the first of several trips back into Myanmar, where she worked on human rights issues such as reducing rising discrimination against minority Muslims, strengthening women’s rights and expanding the role of civil society. On her trips back, she has remained outspoken and skeptical of the government’s reform efforts. After traveling to Thailand earlier this year, she found that the Myanmar government would no longer issue her a visa to return, she says via Skype from Thailand.
Returnees not working with the government are generally told that they must refrain from political activities, but Khin Ohmar and others say they were transparent about their intentions. “We told them what we intended to do — not to reunite with our families or to do business but to contribute to democratic reform. I have nothing to hide,” she says.
At Parami hospital, Tony Ohn says he plans to spend more time in Myanmar and is helping set up a Stanford University Medical School–sponsored training program in Yangon. “You have to have a plan B and a plan C,” he explained to young physicians at the hospital as they reviewed how to intubate a patient.
Unlike many in Myanmar, he and other repats do have a plan B. But as Myanmar becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, the challenge won’t just be keeping people like him from returning to their lives abroad; it will be preventing the next generation from leaving. He sees that every day with the young doctors he trains.
“If you ask each and every one of them, if they have the chance, they will leave this country,” says Ohn. “At least for education, at least to go and make their mark.”