Barely a year later, Thiha Yarzar listened carefully as Burmese military and police officials told him he would soon be on a flight to Rangoon, where he would be reunited with his beloved daughter and the rest of his family, nearly 20 years after he left his parent’s home as an exiled freedom fighter.
They warned him he would have to serve the rest of his 20 year sentence if he was arrested again.
“It was like a dream,” he remembers of the night he drove in a taxi to his sister’s house.
“Prisoners often dream about being released. But, we always are returned to prison before waking up,” he remembered. “I had to convince myself I was not dreaming that same old dream.”
Thiha Yarzar, the political prisoner, had dreamed that dream countless times in the 17 years, six months and 16 days he was imprisoned.
He got lost because the city streets and the neighborhood had changed so much while he was in prison. Two police cars followed the taxi as he tried to find the house he had spent so much time in as a youngster.
He didn’t wake up in his cell. Instead, he finally stood at his sister’s door.
When his sister, Daw Khin Mar Win, answered the door, they just stared at each other. They had not seen each other since she visited him in Insein prison in 1992.
“She shouted, ‘Hey! This is Thiha!’ She came running to meet me, crying.”
“Mummy is here,” she told Thiha.
Thiha stared in amazement as he watched an old woman come out of the house.
“It was my mother. But, I didn’t recognise her at first,” he said.
Daw Tin Lay Myint was now 68. He remembers her hair had turned white. She was thin, but looked healthy.
“She just stared at me, as she moved slowly toward me,” he recalled.
“This is Thiha!” his sister shouted.
“They thought I was dead,” Thiha said, explaining that they had lost track of him since tracing his whereabouts to Kalay prison.
“Mum touched me, my hair, my face, my shoulder,” he remembered vividly.
That evening, Thiha learned of his father’s death in 1996, the year before his wife died. He also learned how his father lost his rank in the army and was forced to retire.
“I’m very sorry,” Thiha told his mother and sister. “It was because of me.” But, they told him, “It’s not your fault.”
“Thiha, I’m very happy to see you alive again before I die,” his mother told him.
The next day, 27 September 2008, was the day Thiha feared might never come. He went to his wife’s parents home to meet the daughter who grew up without him.
When he finally arrived, his mother-in-law, Daw Shwe Yu, was sweeping leaves inside the family compound.
“Finally, Thiha is here!” she exclaimed when she saw him. “Come and see who is here,” she called to his daughter.
Tone Tone came and stood in the doorway.
“She asked me, ‘Are you Dad?’” he remembered vividly.
“I said nothing. I had no strength to speak. I had no words.”
His mother-in-law came to him and hugged him tightly. Then he walked to where Tone Tone was still standing in the doorway.
“I touched her hair and I touched her face, just like my mum had done to me, the night before. I remember thinking, ‘She is lovely, just a lovely young girl’.
He tried to hug her. “She was cold,” he said. “She had gotten used to not having me in her life.”
He knew then, it would take time for her to accept the fact that he was alive.
“I was disappointed. But, I also understood her reaction. I was very confused in my mind. But, I was just happy see my daughter.”
In time, Thiha tried to explain his actions in light of the political situation in Burma.
“But, she was not interested,” he said.
“Because of this I had no father during my childhood. Because of this you were imprisoned for so long. How can you understand how I feel about it all?” she asked.
“But eventually we began to understand each other’s feelings a little more,” Thiha said, looking back.
But, that struggle to understand others and be understood has become an issue in most of Thiha’s relationships since his release. He said the survival instincts that kept him alive in prison make it difficult to trust people and communicate outside.
“I felt like, and still feel like, I came from another planet. This planet is not my home,” he said, with frustration. “It’s like a different planet, now. The world, as I knew it, no longer exists.
“It’s difficult for us, my family, to understand each other. It is very difficult to communicate. I don’t know why. I ask myself, ‘Are you crazy. Are you mad?’
“There is something wrong in my relationships with other people. Nobody can understand me and I can’t understand them. I’m oversensitive. I find it hard to relax and trust people, to trust their motives. Are they making fun of me, laughing at me, being sarcastic?”
He also said he feels people distrust his motives because he is an ex-prisoner.
Even so, since his release he has not been quiet about his strong feelings regarding the continuation of the armed struggle for freedom inside Burma.
“The armed struggle has not been successful, but we have time to change things. We can’t win against the military government because we can’t defend ourselves.
“Armed struggle, as well as political and economic pressure, will force the generals to negotiate peace. Organised armed struggle is a necessity, along with other diplomatic, political and economic means.”
After his release Thiha was continually harassed by his old enemies in the government. He knew he and his family were in danger.
On 3 December 2008, Thiha crossed the Moei river illegally by boat, at Myawaddy, Karen state, entering Thailand at Mae Sot, Tak province.
Eventually, he settled in Mae Sot, also known as the ‘City of Exiles’, where he now lives among many other 88 generation activists who still struggle for change in their homeland.
The decision made by Thiha Yarzar, the young history student at Rangoon University, to pursue and defend the cause of democracy in Burma because it is the better way, and his willingness to pay the steep price to secure it, has not wavered despite long years of imprisonment and torture and suffering by him and his family.
Just months after his release, he helped organise and was prominent in demonstrations calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners in Burma.
Since then, he helped found ExPP-ACT, an NGO committed to providing assistance to ex political prisoners.
“I did my duty and I will continue to do my duty. Every Burmese has a responsibility to struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma,” he said.
“I’m free, and I’m getting strength from the fact that I’m a free man. I will do whatever I can to continue my fight for democracy and human rights.”
Paul Pickrem is the Features Editor of Burma News International and author of NO EASY ROAD: A Burmese Political Prisoner’s Story. He can be contacted at [email protected].