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Political refugee visits Burma after 25 years away

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Friday, March 29, 2013 - 7:34 am

For the first time in 25 years, Kyaw T. Soe returned to Burma to visit.

Soe, a political refugee who runs the IPFW New Immigrant Literacy Program, had fled the country during the student unrest and fighting of 1988. Since he left, the country was renamed Myanmar by military authorities after a coup saw them come to power in 1989.

The trip back Feb. 5-March 5 was the first time Soe has seen any of his family in Rangoon. He has five brothers and one sister, and his mother is still alive. Three years ago his father died and he was unable to return because of the Myanmar government's restrictions.

Thursday afternoon Soe talked about his travels and the changes in Burma as the totalitarian regime begins to slowly loosen its control and takes baby steps toward democracy. A parliamentary government took power in March 2011.

Soe spoke in his daughter's fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade class at Towles Intermediate School, a public Montessori school. Teacher Terry Wallace said part of the curriculum is to study other cultures and countries, and Soe's visit fits right into that mission.

Soe's return to Burma found a country thick with tourists, where not so long ago tight restrictions kept many from visiting the small nation. Now a United States citizen, Soe said it only takes 10 days to get a visa to go there. Hotels and hostels have sprung up around the country. Monasteries and residents are taking in the overflow.

“Unemployment in Burma is at 67 percent,” Soe said.

But the boom in tourism has sparked the construction industry. Soe showed the class photos of a young girl with a load of bricks balanced on a board, on top of her head. A lot of the construction done in Burma is still manual labor.

“Children are dropping out of school to work,” Soe said.

Being a teacher, Soe wanted to visit a school in Burma, but was unable to get permission to see any run by the government. Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy, who now holds a position in the parliament, has her own school and he was allowed to visit there.

Soe told the students that unlike in the United States, Burma has no school buses, hot breakfasts or lunches for students. The children walk to school.

The local class had the opportunity to try some traditional Burmese makeup “Tha-nut-Khar.” Soe brought along some traditional articles of clothing, a Burmese harp, a sun umbrella, which is a copy of the one Aung San Suu Kyi carries, as well as other traditional items for the students to look at.

As Burma begins to open its doors to other countries Soe said there are now Western-style shopping malls where Chinese, Thai and Korean goods are sold. It used to be all merchandise was sold in open markets, which the country still has. So far the only American corporations in the country are GE and Coca-Cola.

The students asked him how it was seeing his family after all these years.

“At first I was very sad, but then I was happy to be with them,” Soe said.

He had initially taken a room in a hotel while visiting his family in Rangoon, but it wasn't long before his family insisted he come and stay with them.

The American dollar is very strong in Burma so the most expensive thing about going is the airfare, which costs about $1,500. That is one of the reasons so many tourists are making it their destination, Soe said.

He will be returning in June for another visit.