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Tharaphi Than (first from left) with the Burmese exiles she met (London, 2017)

As part of the HaB curricula project on exiles, I had two meetings with Burmese/Myanmar exiles.  The first meeting took place on the 21st of May, 2017 in London.  Four exiles—three men and one woman—came to the meeting whereas one joined via Skype from Sheffield.

Our conversation during the London meeting highlighted experiences many exiles from different countries across many generations could easily share.  We started our conversation with the discussion of the term ‘exile’.  There is no consensus among exiles as to what name(s) best capture their lives.  Burmese governments use the term ပြည်ပြေး but since it connotes criminality portraying exiles as fugitives, Burmese (political) exiles adopted a rather pedantic label: ‘political forces in third countries’ or ‘political forces abroad’. But this is a reference they use primarily among themselves.  For others, they seemed to have accepted whatever labels they were given.  It matters little for them if they are called exiles, migrants or refugees.

Though pedantic, the term ‘political forces in third countries’ vividly describe multiple nodes of an exile’s life trajectory.  The first country is of course Burma or Myanmar where they, many of whom were students at the time, first tasted and tested politics and political systems.  The second country is Thailand where many of them found themselves, either as members of the ABSDF (All Burma Student Democratic Front) or as refugees. It’s a label they detest but were powerless to reject because of the ‘opportunities’ it brought – such as the opportunity to resettle in a third country.  The third country is often the last stop on the path to becoming and settling as an exile.

The exiles I talked to are mostly accidental exiles.  They did not choose to become exiles or they did not think they would still be living in a ‘third’ country three decades after the 8888 demonstration and other smaller protests they led or participated in. Many of them still struggle with their exilic identity.  Their political self, the self that many Burmese learned to suppress or hide for safety, continues to dictate their lives. Being a meat packer or journalist in a third country is only a small part of their identity.  They can survive and even lead comfortable lives in their third countries but many of them cannot live without their political self, or the political identity they adopted many years ago and the identity that sent them across seas and mountains from their homeland to their adopted countries. One exile said ‘everyday on a train from home to work, I ask myself if my life is meaningful.’  Without political contributions to their homeland, they do not think their everyday existence in a third country is meaningful. This political exile cum journalist was deeply self-aware, particularly of his comfortable life, and he uttered those words almost with a sense of guilt.

In him, I saw a man who is trying to pass as an ordinary person but who ponders thoughts that he worried could be construed as virtue signalling and therefore were not even shared with his wife, another exile.  Over the course of the meeting, I could increasingly feel the burden of being an exile myself, especially in post-‘reformed’ Burma, an account of which will be continued in the next blog post.

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