When Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced her trust in President Thein Sein last August, Tin Win Akbar decided it was time to return home after spending almost 16 years as an exile in Japan.
Akbar, 58, who lives in the city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, and is a member of Nobel laureate and democracy icon Suu Kyi’s opposition party, assumed his offer to help rebuild Myanmar after decades of harsh military rule and aid its nascent reform drive would be welcomed back home.
But after a visit to the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo to apply for new passports for his family in January, Akbar realized he was being overly optimistic about the country’s recent political and economic changes.
When he turned up at the embassy, an employee demanded he pay about ¥1.74 million in retroactive income tax for his new passport alone — based on Akbar’s income from his arrival in Japan in 1996 to last December — money he doesn’t have.
“It was a big blow,” said Akbar. “This is a clear sign that political dissidents like us are still not really welcome.”
Myanmar’s nominally civilian government embarked on a startling series of democratic reforms in March 2011. Though the military still wields enormous clout, the new regime has freed hundreds of political prisoners and conducted by-elections in April that were widely deemed legitimate and that saw Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party sweep to a landslide victory.
Such events earned the outcast country a degree of trust among the international community and countries have since sought to boost bilateral relations to further the reforms, including Japan and the United States.
But tens of thousands of Myanmar dissidents living in exile claim the reforms are merely cosmetic, pointing out that the military, whose ultimate authority was enshrined in the country’s revised constitution in 2008, could easily crush the fledgling democratic process. Most of them have no plans to return home anytime soon.
“The Japanese press has painted a rosy picture of the democratic changes, but they are still at an early stage,” Akbar claimed.
He said many of his fellow exiles will remain skeptical until a landmark 2015 general election, which Suu Kyi’s NLD is expected to win, is held.
The poll is widely seen as a litmus test: Will the military intervene at that stage and seize power, or allow a potential new government led by Suu Kyi to start drafting a more democratic constitution?
Critics say the reforms are still being implemented on the military’s terms, as the current constitution effectively gives the generals veto powers over any proposed measures.
At present, amendments to Myanmar’s constitution require the approval of more than 75 percent of members of Parliament — and the 2008 revisions ensure the military holds 25 percent of the legislature’s seats.
One article even authorizes the generals to stage a de facto coup d’etat by granting the commander in chief of the Defense Services the right to seize power after consulting with the president during what it vaguely defines as “times of emergency.”
“The head is moving fast but the body is having trouble keeping up” with the pace of democratic and economic change, said Kei Nemoto, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and an expert on Myanmar.
Thousands of doctors, engineers and other highly qualified professionals have fled Myanmar since the late Ne Win seized power from a civilian government in a military coup in 1962, when the country was known as Burma.
The junta’s harsh crackdown on the democracy movement over the following decades, most notably during a mass uprising in 1988, killed thousands and forced many more to seek refuge in neighboring parts of Asia, including Japan.
The reformist government is trying to lure emigres home to assist in the transition to a democratic system. But even though President Thein Sein has declared they would not face persecution, few have actually returned, fearing the regime remains under the military’s control.
“Thein Sein does not want political dissidents. He is only interested in people who have made a fortune and have studied economics to aid economic reforms,” said Akbar. “If he wants us to come back, he should give us a general amnesty.”
Akbar said almost all of the roughly 8,500 Myanmar nationals residing in Japan are still concerned they might be arrested if they go home. He is one of the few exceptions, and is desperate to return with his wife to build up the NLD ahead of the 2015 general election. Their children’s plans remain unclear.
Born to a family that runs a successful fashion business in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city about 700 km north of Yangon, Akbar became a prominent member in the country’s democracy movement during the so-called 8888 Uprising in 1988. He was detained that September because of his involvement but joined the NLD on Feb. 11, 1989 — one day after his release.
However, Akbar’s mentor warned him he and his family were in extreme danger after the NLD boycotted a long-running junta-backed constitutional convention in 1996 and he helped efforts to draft the party’s own proposed constitution. Fearing he might be jailed again, Akbar’s wife, Tin Nwe Oo, bribed local officials to issue him with a passport and he fled that year to Japan, where his wife and children joined him later.
He was granted refugee status in 1999, but could not find suitable employment despite his technical expertise and multilingual skills, and had to settle for manual labor — like most of his fellow emigres. Akbar works at an auto parts factory in Ota, where he operates a machine press that could crush his hands if his focus were to waver for a moment. His wife is employed at the same plant.
But once he gets home from work he resumes his activist activities, spending hours writing articles on Myanmar and, these days, communicating with more than 2,400 friends on Facebook, which his wife jokingly refers to as her “worst enemy,” because he barely spends any time with her.
On weekends, Akbar visits Tokyo to attend meetings of the Federation of Workers’ Union of Burmese Citizens in Japan, which he founded in 2002 to fight for better employment for Myanmar immigrants.
In addition, he often gives lectures on issues pertaining to Myanmar at universities and meets with other refugees and asylum seekers to discuss ideas to assist the democracy drive back home. His activities are not limited to the domestic stage, as Akbar also regularly gives interviews to international media outlets, including the BBC.
Akbar acknowledges that his time in Japan has helped school him in the practice of negotiated settlement — a nonexistent concept in Myanmar. This will be key if the NLD is to work in tandem with the government on the reform process and to redraw the constitution without the military intervening, he said.
“We don’t have much time left. It is very important that society engages in the democratic process,” he said. “I think I am in a position to act as a bridge between Japan and Myanmar and share what I have learned during my stay here.”
Despite his impatience to return home, however, Akbar has decided to postpone his repatriation ambitions for at least another two years, as he has to consider a multitude of factors.
Like many Myanmar immigrants, Japan has become Akbar’s second home and his three children have all been raised and educated in the country. His youngest daughter will graduate from university in two years’ time. In addition, he will become eligible to receive a Japanese state pension around the same time.
“I have to look after my family, especially my wife, who has sacrificed a lot in her life while I have engaged in political activities,” Akbar said.
“I have a very strong sentiment to go home, but I feel trapped between all the various considerations.”