Maung Maung Sein had been waiting 20 years for an "Asian Spring" to arrive in his native Myanmar, when political, economic and social reforms would bring change to the country's repressive military rule.
Customers at the small travel agency he runs in Tokyo’s Takadanobaba district would be surprised to learn that this humble man was once a star swimmer in Myanmar, representing his country in international meets in the mid-1980s.
Since his arrival in Japan in 1992, the 45-year-old native of Yangon tried to forget his glorious past. He gave into despair that change would come anytime soon in Myanmar and obtained Japanese citizenship in 2001.
But today, that change has apparently finally arrived, opening opportunities to Maung Maung Sein and the domestic Myanmarese population in Japan.
Of about 8,000 Myanmar residents in Japan, 1,865 had refugee status or special permission to stay in Japan for humanitarian reasons at the end of 2011.
Challenging the widely held public image of them as desperate asylum seekers, they are now confident that they can serve as a bridge between Myanmar and Japan.
Maung Maung Sein is seeking to give back to his native homeland through his first love, swimming.
In 2010, when he met a young boy, Min Thu Kha, he realized he had uncovered a raw gem who could become a source of pride for the people of Myanmar, like he once was.
Now, as Myanmar is preparing to host the Southeast Asian Games in 2013 for the first time since 1969, Maung Maung Sein is bringing the boy, now 15, to Japan at his own expense in May to personally coach him in preparation for the big event.
“This boy has a potential to win medals in the Asian Games, which I came close to, but could not do when I represented Burma in the Games in 1985,” said Maung Maung Sein, pointing to video footage of the boy in a swimming pool with murky water in Yangon.
“It will also to give a much needed morale boost and source of pride to all the Myanmar people,” said Maung Maung Sein, who still holds Myanmarese records in the 200-, 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle and studied coaching at the graduate school of Tokyo Gakugei University.
He was recently appointed to be a technical adviser by the Myanmar Swimming Federation and asked to provide his expertise to help it make a good showing in the Southeast Asian Games.
Even when he was a dominant swimmer, Myanmar, then called Burma, lacked decent training facilities and knowledgeable coaches. Today, the situation remains, and this made it imperative to invite Min Thu Kha to Japan, Maung Maung Sein said.
When the boy clears his visa probation period, he will stay at his mentor’s apartment in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, and receive full-time coaching at a local swimming club.
“If the boy wins a medal, it will mean a victory for both Japanese and the Myanmar people,” he said.
EX-ACTIVIST BRINGS CHANGE THROUGH BUSINESS
Earlier this month, President Thein Sein visited Japan in the first official trip by Myanmar's top head of state to Japan in 25 years. A day before the summit meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Thein Sein attended a welcome luncheon hosted by the Japan Business Federation and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along with leaders of other East Asian countries.
The meeting at the Imperial Hotel on April 20 was a big moment for Banya Zaw, who was invited to the event from among Myanmar businessmen based in Japan.
When the 42-year-old former student activist immigrated to Japan in 1989, it was hard to imagine that he would someday share a table with Thein Sein and other key Cabinet members.
In Japan, he applied for refugee status, while engaging in pro-democracy movements by Myanmar expatriates here. But their activities failed to draw much public attention, and his application for asylum was later rejected by the Japanese government.
In 1995, he returned home to pursue a career in the business field.
“At the time, I was called a ‘betrayer’ by other pro-democracy activists, but I thought it would be more effective to change the government from within,” Banya Zaw said during an interview after the luncheon.
Military police interrogated him for weeks, but eventually released him, possibly because his family had connections to senior military officials, he added.
“Democracy movements could be one way to bring a political change, but I believe business is also an effective way to bring about a more open society in Myanmar and improve the lives of people there,” he said.
Established in 1997, his 359 Group International Japan Co. exports used cars, trucks, buses and electronic appliances, mainly electric power generators, to Myanmar. His family also owns a hotel and an electronic store chain in Myanmar.
Since Myanmar relaxed restrictions on car imports last fall, his business has expanded rapidly, exporting 2,000 cars, from high-end Lexus vehicles to slick SUVs, in the past six months. Developing connections with high-ranking government and military members through his business, he also provides consultations for Japanese companies wanting to expand into a country offering abundant, unexploited resources and an up-and-coming market of 60 million people.
“I now believe more than ever that I made the right choice in 1989 to come to Japan, as Japan and Myanmar are Asia’s two most contrasting countries and thus able to complement each other perfectly,” he said.
REFUGEES SEE NEW ERA COMING
Those who are granted political asylum in Japan also welcome the changing political times in Myanmar, taking up Thein Sein’s offer to expatriates in August last year to return home to work toward national development.
With his long-held dream becoming a reality, Demo Thin Win, a 23-year-old second-generation asylum seeker, graduated from Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo Prefecture in March and started at Osaka-based trading firm Okamoto Electronics Corp. this month.
His father, Tin Win, is a member of the National League for Democracy, led by dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and the family was given asylum here in 1999.
The 57-year-old seasoned democracy activist named his first son Demo, who was born while he was imprisoned in Myanmar, hoping that he would carry on his pro-democracy activism efforts.
Like Tin Win himself, who works at an auto parts factory in Tatebayashi, Gunma Prefecture, many of the older generation refugees are struggling to finance their activism while supporting their families.
But Demo now sees broader opportunities ahead. Through working at the trading firm, he said he wants to be a conduit between the two countries.
“My father’s generation devoted their entire life for democratic activism, and their efforts are finally bearing fruit today,” he said.
“I hope that our activism has reached the next level--to actually help our people back home improve their lives. It will also reinforce the country’s course for democracy.”
Tin Win, who has also engaged in efforts to raise awareness of refugee issues in Japan, said he hopes that his son will not only help bring changes in Myanmar, but also change the perception of refugees in Japan.
“Refugees can actually benefit a recipient country, once the political situation in their home countries gets better. They can serve as a bridge between the two countries,” he said.
“I now have growing hope that the Japan-Myanmar relationship will be a model case in this respect.”
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the response in Japan to political changes in Myanmar.
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