YANGON, Myanmar — Tony Ohn doesn’t blink as the lights suddenly go out in his 12th-floor office at Parami Hospital, a private clinic where the 55-year-old physician is heading up a new emergency medicine department.
The generator will kick in momentarily, and after all, frequent power shortages are just part of life in Myanmar, a country that was still named Burma and was under a military dictatorship in 1988, when Ohn left home to seek a career in the United States. The days of overt military rule are over. He has returned to be near his aging parents and to help improve his native country’s creaky health infrastructure as Myanmar undergoes a tenuous transition to democracy.
Parami is one of Yangon’s most advanced medical clinics, but it’s still a far cry from the Palmdale Regional Medical Center in northern Los Angeles County, where Ohn lived for much of the last decade. He returns to Los Angeles four times a year to do medical rotations and to help pay the mortgages on the houses he and his wife, also from Myanmar, own in Illinois and California.
After more than 20 years living in the United States, America is home — but so is Myanmar.
Ohn’s story is unique but not uncommon in post-junta Myanmar. Take a close look at many of the medical clinics, tech startups, upscale restaurants, civil society groups and financial firms doing business there these days and you’ll likely find at least one repatriate — or repat, as they’re often called — a returning member of the large Burmese diaspora that left for Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, the United States or Europe during the years of repressive military rule that began in 1962 and eased only in 2011. By most estimates, there are somewhere north of 5 million Myanmar natives living abroad.
The country’s opening to the world in 2011 has prompted thousands of native sons and daughters to return, though there is no exact count. They come with a mix of backgrounds and motives. There are entrepreneurs hoping to build businesses in a frontier economy where they speak the language, development workers, former ethnic rebels and student activists. Some of the student activists were invited back as advisers by the quasi-civilian government to help it modernize; others remain harshly critical of the former generals who still control the levers of power.
Many straddle two worlds, keeping one foot in the country of their birth and one in their adopted homeland. Their new countries are often more prosperous, and if things go sour in Myanmar’s national elections this November — the first since the end of military rule — there’s nothing stopping repats from leaving, especially since many still have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed abroad. A number of them have taken major pay cuts to live in a country with one of Asia’s poorest educational and health systems.
“I came back because of my parents and because we had no children. If we had children, I would not [have] come back,” says Ohn, noting that most of his former classmates from Myanmar who still live overseas aren’t ready to return. Those who do, he says, often don’t last long. “The trend is people coming back and after two to three years they get frustrated and go back.”
Things are somewhat easier in the business sector, where many younger repats have carved out roles as entrepreneurs, financial experts and liaisons for the Western companies that have moved into Myanmar since the easing of U.S. and EU sanctions. While repats bring skills and international experience, fitting in often requires adapting.
“You are both foreign and local at the same time,” says Htet Myet Oo, who, along with three partners, opened the Rangoon Tea House last year in downtown Yangon. It offers upscale, gourmet takes on traditional Myanmar street food, like the ubiquitous mohinga, a type of fish-based noodle soup.
When Ohmar was a senior at Rangoon University, like many other students who participated in the bloody 1988 protests, she and her colleagues were pursued by Burma’s military intelligence unit. They fled to rebel-held territory on the border with Thailand, where they bonded with the ethic minority Mon people over shared anti-government views. She applied to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok for political asylum, was resettled in the United States in 1990 and eventually became an American citizen. She studied in western Massachusetts and made her way to Washington, D.C., where she became well versed in the tactics of the exile activist, even testifying before a Senate subcommittee in 1995.
At Parami hospital, Tony Ohn says he plans to spend more time in Myanmar and is helping set up a Stanford University Medical School–sponsored training program in Yangon. “You have to have a plan B and a plan C,” he explained to young physicians at the hospital as they reviewed how to intubate a patient.
Unlike many in Myanmar, he and other repats do have a plan B. But as Myanmar becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, the challenge won’t just be keeping people like him from returning to their lives abroad; it will be preventing the next generation from leaving. He sees that every day with the young doctors he trains.
“If you ask each and every one of them, if they have the chance, they will leave this country,” says Ohn. “At least for education, at least to go and make their mark.”