Opinion: A political refugee from Myanmar brings powerful story to new home in Coralville – Iowa City Press-Citizen
People migrate to the United States for many reasons.
Often it’s because of oppressive conditions in their home country. That was the case for Ko Ko Lwin.
An environmental engineer from the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, he arrived in Coralville this summer, a political refugee.
You may know that in February a coup occurred in Myanmar, with the military seizing power. Myanmar has a history of military rule, which softened in 2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won the election.
After the 2020 election, the military overthrew Suu Kyi’s rule, and she was put on trial, charged with voter fraud and corruption.
Lwin, 32, had worked closely with international NGOs and the Suu Kyi government in developing natural resource policy. When the military began cracking down on those associated with the previous regime, his name was placed on an arrest list.
Though Lwin had studied abroad, he never considered leaving Myanmar for good; now, however, he had to begin hiding in various safe houses.
In the heightened atmosphere, the military imposed an 8 p.m. curfew.
“In the night you would hear them raiding houses,” Lwin said. “I would wake up afraid. The military was torturing, interrogating and killing detainees, and then asking the family to pick up the dead body the next day. At night, there were only the sounds of trucks and screaming.”
A friend with U.S. State Department contacts told him he needed to leave the country. He took a month to think about it.
After several traumatic experiences, he decided to leave, though he would leave behind his parents, siblings and his dog. Thus began a perilous journey.
With a group of four others, he traveled clandestinely to an ethnic area bordering Thailand, where they crossed the border by fording a river. He lived in a Thai border town for a month, waiting for travel permission.
He arrived in the United States on the Fourth of July.
He was exhausted, he said, mentally drained from living in hiding.
“I looked forward to walking around freely. I was still traumatized, not used to going out after 8 p.m. and a little nervous about it. But I’m getting better,” Lwin said.
His visa was sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Society in Coralville, where he is now living.
Tragically, Lwin’s father, who ran a construction business in Myanmar, died of COVID-19 two weeks after Lwin arrived in Iowa.
“I blame the military,” he said. “They shut down the supply of oxygen in hospitals and used it only for military personnel. There was no health support. My father died because of that. The military government doesn’t care about the people. They’re a privileged group.“
Growing up under military rule was a kind of brainwashing, Lwin said. Once things opened up five years ago, young people went abroad for education, got good jobs, and began interacting with the international community.
“They tasted democracy. People changed a lot,” he said. “The soldiers, however, have not changed. Poor people join the military as one of their only options. They’re often uneducated, and they live closed off in the barracks.”
However, Lwin said resistance against the military is strong, something the generals didn’t expect. Armed groups in the provinces are providing training to resistance forces. A shadow National Unity Government is also active.
I was curious to hear Lwin’s thoughts on Suu Kyi. Though initially a respected democracy figure internationally, her refusal to intervene in military persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar tarnished her reputation.
With Suu Kyi’s election, Lwin believes the government began to hold a genuine interest in the people’s well-being.
“I used to like Aung San Suu Kyi a lot,” he said. “I respected her sacrifices. I met her a couple of times in person. She encouraged young people. But the Rohingya issue put me off. Her father was one of the founders of the modern Burmese military. This is what earned her much of her support. She wanted reconciliation with the military (and thus didn’t criticize their Rohingya policy). She didn’t realize her reputation would suffer as a result.”
Lwin believes Suu Kyi also should’ve known the coup was coming.
“Why didn’t she prepare? Those in her circle had good intentions, but their capacity was low,” he said. “She was not a good leader, as she didn’t delegate responsibility.”
On Sept. 7, the National Unity Government announced war with the military. Since, there has been protracted fighting. Lwin believes this is not a good solution, as it will cost too many lives.
Asked his thoughts on the future of the country, he said: “I’m not so hopeful (in the short term). The military is very stubborn.”
The United Nations and ASEAN have tried to intervene and sanctions have been imposed.
However, “the international community cannot do much. China and Russia support the (junta). The military say they don’t need many friends,” Lwin said.
“However,” he added, “the Myanmar people are resilient. They have the will to fight. They are strong. I’m hopeful that one day things will change.”
In the meantime, he does what he can from Iowa to garner support and raise funds for democracy in Myanmar.
And he is looking to his future here. He wants to continue working in the environmental field. He’s helping lead a workshop on the “Drawdown” protocol for climate change. His work permit is in the works, and he’ll try to find a job in environmental management.
The challenges of emigrating include leaving loved ones behind. Lwin has five sisters. After his father’s death, four of them also got COVID. They’re all OK now, and he keeps in touch as much as he can.
His left arm features a newly acquired tattoo, a stylized portrait of his mother and father.
Andy Douglas is the author of “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir” and “The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga.”