Five Days in Burma
By AUNG ZAW Thursday, February 23, 2012


As the plane descended into Rangoon's international airport, I noticed a slight change in my heartbeat. I felt calm, but also excited, knowing that I was about to return to Burma for the first time in 24 years.

Inside the airport, a young immigration officer smiled as I gave him my passport. He was quite chatty, asking me about The Irrawaddy—how we gather news from inside Burma, how we designed our website. With a smile that betrayed his betel-chewing habit—his teeth had a telltale tinge of red—he said he visited our site as often as possible. Meanwhile, the people waiting in line behind me grew impatient as they were made to wait until my friendly interrogation was finally over.

Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

A TV crew from Al Jazeera that came to film my arrival was soon joined by officers from the Special Branch who also wielded cameras. They politely snapped a few photos, and I smiled back at them. I also jokingly told them to make sure they reported the correct information about me to their superiors.  They assured me they would, asked me my age, and then left me alone.

Finished at the airport, I made my way to my hotel downtown. Looking around at the city where I had spent the first 20 years of my life, I was struck by how much it had changed since 1988. Thoughts of my final days there also crowded my mind. At that time, Rangoon was in a state of upheaval, with soldiers everywhere, gunfire crackling all around and blood staining the streets. Fear and anarchy gripped the former capital.

But even during my years in exile, I never truly left Burma. Day and night, it was always in my mind. I closely followed events in my country from neighboring Thailand. I wrote about developments there on a regular basis, first for Thai newspapers and then for The Irrawaddy, which I founded in 1993. I also made frequent visits to the Thai-Burmese border, where I occasionally slipped into rebel-controlled territory to get a very different perspective on the country of my birth.

In my dreams, I returned countless times to my home and family in Rangoon. But these dreams always ended as nightmares, as I found myself surrounded by secret police and local informers.

My grandmother, who is now in her 80s and living with me in Thailand, was genuinely worried when I told her that I had received a visa to return to Burma. Like most Burmese, she has a deep mistrust of the authorities. She advised me to chant Buddhist sutras to ward off any misfortune that might befall me.

By the time I arrived at the hotel, the slight tension I had felt earlier had dissolved. The spirit of Burma embraced me, and I began to ease into the feeling that I was back home.

But even at this moment, some things seemed strange. The sound of hotel staff greeting guests with a cheerful “Mingalaba,” for instance, was slightly jarring to my ears. In my childhood, it was a word we used only when speaking to our teachers; now, however, you hear it every time you enter a restaurant or hotel.

After a lunch meeting with a group of editors and publishers in downtown Rangoon, I rushed to meet Tint Swe, the deputy director general at the Ministry of Information. The reception was warm. Without beating around the bush, we quickly jumped into a discussion about the changing media landscape, the draft media law and many other issues surrounding media development in Burma.

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—in a building known to most Burmese writers as the headquarters of the “literary Kempeitai,” because it had been used during WWII by the Kempeitai, Japan's notorious wartime military police force.

After that meeting, I went to a market near Shwedagon Pagoda, where several people grabbed me and asked me to sit down for a chat. They spoke to me as they would to a long lost friend. Some recognized me from “Dateline Irrawaddy,” our weekly TV program broadcast via the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma. They said they read our website, which became accessible in Burma last year after the government lifted a ban on the exile media, and had heard about my visit on the radio.

This happened quite a few times, in restaurants, markets and offices.

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TAH Wrote:
Thank you so much for sharing your account in Burma and your thoughts. I think your account and thoughts will also represent many people's who are both inside and outside of Burma. We are all fooled around by current civilian regime and those who go back will be fooled around, if not spun around, this time, in "chicken basket" with no way out. These former soldiers are just cheating!

oliver Wrote:
Almost nothing changes things faster than money. When mostly driven by greed the changes money brings are usually for the worse, but if they blunt Burma's bayonet then some good will come out of this. I wonder how long the military cronies will dread the lifting of sanctions once they realize how much more money they could make? As you suggest, it is early days yet.

K Wrote:
Advancements made in political arena has not been trickled down to important sectors such as health and education that directly affect welfare of majority of population. Next time when you visit Yangon, walk down a few blocks to Yangon General Hospital to get a glimpse of an example of country's outdated and crumble infrastructure.

Ayokso Wrote:
Great article! My most recent trip back was also around the same time Aung Zaw was there. Had very similar thoughts, feelings and experiences as him. Seeing Naypyidaw made me feel sadder than impressed. It is really weird. Not to be too critical, but the highway there will have to be brought up to specs sooner rather than later. How about parallel publications for "The Irrawaddy"? Each from within and outside the country?

Denise Nichols. Wrote:
A moving account of an exile's return.

Tawtha Wrote:
Very glad 4 UR trip home. Recent events in Burma are truly interesting.There always a director/s in any play and urge to remember Bogyoke's speech just B4 he led Anti Fascist revolution against Japanese Fascist Army "Annihilate the closest enemy".

Patriot Wrote:
Yes,very interesting and very informative.Its is TRUE what Ludu Sein Win Said "cunning and manipulative and would not give up power easily". Another one to take note of is"media is already dominated by relatives and cronies of senior military officials". They have dominated not only the media but also "Business".Look at Zaw Zaw,Teza etc.Who are they?And now they want sanctions to be lifted,why?
Please let those who are very eager to rush in to do business know all these facts.

htunwai Wrote:
This is my 1st visit to you,but thank u so much for sharing ur views on current situation.

“It's all just for show.”
Until and unless the 2008 Nargis constitution is SCRAPPED and Burma's capital moved back to Rangoon, I would bury my bones in an alien land as a FREE MAN and for the BEST as well.

Ma Thitsa Wrote:
I just read Ko Aung Zaw's trip to Burma for five days and felt the honesty and sincerity in his words.. I have been out of my homelandfor three decades and Irrawaddy Journal has been my favorite to obtain knowledge about the issues and events and keep track of my beloved home land.....As a foreign citizen I had no choice since the Burmese passport was revoked...the dream that kept me going alone in a foreign land was the contribution that I hoped I could make one day for enriching our education sector.... I am still hoping that we can stand with pride again in the global community very soon.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Glad Ko Aung Zaw made that trip to give us a low down. A booster dose of the old country even if it was only five days must do him good. And Ludu U Sein Win got it right.

The Irrawaddy has earned its place in history and in Burmese hearts. Only its place on Burmese soil remains to be realized. Surely it won't be long.

kkloveburma Wrote:
Even if this is a thorough analysis, still there are so many things left to know. Poor farmers, massive deficit budgets due to mismanagement, inflation, central bank owned by the generals, cronyism widespread, Phone Win's cheating, other INGOs and Local NGO's cheating including UN agencies, the quasi-civilian government's still exploiting its own people, lack of good governance, lack of transparency, NLD lacks intellectuals, USDP's cheating and lacks intellectuals, Daw Aung Suu Kyi's weakness to know how to unite this nation, not qualify in local and exile media, Burmese youths who lack all knowledge and qualify education except Korean movies, that's why NLD has to field good for nothing pop stars as its candidates, etc. Wish learning more.

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