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(Yonhap Feature) Burmese activists see lessons to be learned from Korea's history
By Steven Borowiec
Contributing writer
BUCHEON, South Korea, March 12 (Yonhap) -- There are now more foreign nationals in South Korea than at any other time in its history. People are coming here from all over for work, education, love or to explore their interest in Korean culture. Nay Tun Naing is one of the some 1.4 million foreigners in Korea, but his reason for coming, and the motivation to stay, sets him apart from others.

   Naing, 44, came to Korea in 1994 from Burma, also known as Myanmar, fleeing out of fear for his freedom and safety. Naing's pro-democracy activism got him in trouble with the repressive junta that ran his country, and to keep out of Burma's large and abusive prison system, his parents suggested he go abroad.

   "I thought I could come to Korea and I could learn from the democratic society and continue my political activities," Naing said.

   Naing first learned about Korea in the 1980s in the pages of the weekly news magazines his family subscribed to. His family, friends and classmates would often hold discussions on politics and current affairs, and Korea would often come up as a natural comparison for Burma, an Asian state that had suffered through war and dictatorship, but had managed to build a functioning democracy.

   "At the time I thought Burma and Korea were very similar historically and politically. But it's a tragic issue for me. Why is Burma a failure and why did Korea succeed?" Naing said. He hoped that a detailed understanding of Korean history would give him insight into the shortcomings of his home country.

   In Korea, he and some other Burmese nationals founded a local branch of the National League of Democracy (NLD) in Korea. The organization was deemed illegal by the Burmese government and to this day, Naing and others like him would face seven years of imprisonment if they were to return home.

Nay Tun Naing, 44, at the NLD Korea branch in Bucheon. Naing fled to South Korea after getting in trouble in Burma for his pro-democracy activism against the junta. (Photos courtesy of Steven Borowiec)

There are some 9,100 Burmese residents in Korea, most of them entering on the Employee Permit System to work jobs that don't require special skills. The NLD Korea branch has 31 Burmese members, perhaps too small to be considered representative of Korea's Burmese population, but they contribute to the funding of the organization's activities, including the renting of its office space in Bucheon, a suburb south of Seoul.

   The NLD remains as active in Burmese affairs as is possible while living so far away. They hold weekly meetings where members are updated on the latest news from home. They actively communicate with activists in Burma and send messages of support along with financial assistance to pro-democracy groups. Their Bucheon office is open almost every day and members are free to drop in to work or just spend time in the company of friends who speak their language.

   Thet Naing (no relation to Nay Tun Naing), an NLD member, says his activities with the group allow him to feel he is contributing to Korean society as well as to the democratization of his homeland.

   "NLD helps democracy in Burma because financially and psychologically we do things that will help democratization in Burma as much as we can," said Thet Naing, 47, a worker in a garment factory. He has been in Korea for 10 years and an NLD member for the past five.

   "We share our experiences in Burma with Korean society and exchange views for our democratization. It is a great benefit to all of us," he said.

   Burma is finally starting to show substantial signs of democratization and Nay Tun Naing, after 19 years away from home and now fluent in Korean, is hoping to apply the lessons he has learned during his time in Korea.

   Coming abroad wasn't his preferred option. A regular life was the most attractive prospect for Naing and other activists of his generation, but with an illegitimate government in power, they felt a duty to put aside personal ambitions to work for the well-being of their country.

   "Of course we didn't want to struggle. Of course we wanted to just study very peacefully with our friends, with our girlfriends, in a peaceful university atmosphere," Naing said. "But we didn't have any choice. At the time, some of my friends were along the border (with Thailand), waging an armed struggle with military groups, some of my friends were in jail, some of my friends were forming political parties. That's why I thought I would be selfish if I just went on with my studies."
They hope that they will be able to return sooner than later and when they do they are planning to hold workshops with Burmese members of parliament and activists to teach them about Korea. They are preparing translations of documents detailing Korea's democratization, particularly explaining the nuts and bolts of the government's transition.

   "We want to know how they overcame these problems. Also about their technology and all the other good points that helped them become democratic. That way, we will contribute to our country's development," Naing said.

   After years of military rule, the Thein Sein regime took power in Burma in 2010 and initiated modest steps towards political reform. Pressure from the U.N. and the international community led to parliamentary elections and the release of political prisoners. Some have celebrated the end of dictatorship in Burma and the beginning of an era that may allow for the development of the country's rich human and natural resources.

   But Naing says that while the reforms are noteworthy, there is still a long way to go.

   "This hasn't been a real change for regular people; it's been a change of the political atmosphere," he said. "It's better than before. We are on our way to becoming a democratic country, but this is only the first step." The main sticking point preventing full democratization in Burma, according to Naing, is the 2008 constitution, which critics say is a ruse meant to create the impression of democracy while maintaining the military's grip on power.

   "This constitution is meant for the maintenance of military power. The main problem is that according to this constitution, if the commander-in-chief considers that there is an emergency situation, he can make any decision. The reforms that have been made can collapse at any time. We can't have peace in our minds until we have a democratic constitution in our country," Naing said. According to the 2008 constitution, the commander-in-chief still exercises appellate power.

Members of National League of Democracy Korea branch pose with Aung San Suu Kyi during her Seoul visit in January 2013.

But Naing and his colleagues, and their families back home, see a light at the end of the tunnel on Burma's long march toward democracy. A presidential election is scheduled for 2015, which could see a transfer of power and constitutional reform. The country's most iconic citizen, democracy activist and politician Aung San Suu Kyi, is currently the most popular prospective candidate.

   Suu Kyi spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. When she visited South Korea in January, Naing spoke with her in person for the first time in 24 years. "We realized that our struggle has been going on for much more than 20 years," he said.

   None of the NLD members in Korea had experienced cold weather before coming to Korea and over this year's frigid winter they have missed the tropical warmth of home. Naing says with a smile, "When I first came here and saw snow, it was new and exciting, but now I've had enough. I'm ready to go back."