Thandar Lwin was born in Burma and lived there until she was eleven. But when the military government started to systematically deny and abuse the human rights of the people, Thandar’s father—who is a Doctor, still practicing in London—decided that they needed to leave. So they arrived in 1990, leaving in the distance the sound of gunshots, death and a country rife with political turmoil. But little did she know, she would find herself back in Burma as an adult, confronting once again the dangers of her past...
When Thandar first arrived in the UK as a little girl, it was mid-winter and she experienced a different kind of shock. Far removed from the familiarities of home, she missed the sun, the warmth, and everything that she had ever known. It took her years to find her sense of belonging in London but eventually she did and now at the age of 37, she is the Programme Administrator for an American University based in Russell Square.
She works hard and is great at what she does. As the Programme Administrator, she is responsible for planning itineraries for excursions and semester outlines in conjunction with the Director and Residential Assistants, making Doctor’s appointments, filing forms and registers, and keeping in regular correspondence with the students, and much more. And certainly, her tireless efforts enrich their experiences abroad: “I enjoy getting to know the students, I like talking to them, listening to them, helping them. I feel I’m making a difference and enriching their study abroad experience. It’s also really refreshing to meet young people, full of dreams, opportunities and hopes. It’s like we made a small contribution to their life experience.”
She is also an amazing mother to her five-year-old son, Zachary, and is married to her husband, Hkun Oo Lwin.
One day, Zachary, who loves learning about the solar system and the stars, asked her why he was shorter than the rest of his peers and she affectionately explained, “The Earth is one of the smaller planets in our solar system, but look, everyone wants to live here.”
On being different from the majority, Thandar has said that she feels accustomed to the English culture and that she could not imagine returning to Burma any time soon, especially when thinking about her son and the stability she wants to provide for him. “Education alone is reason enough. I want him to have a stable childhood. I don’t want him to be in and out of schools and I don’t want to keep moving homes. When I look back at my childhood, it must have been a difficult decision for my parents to have not given my brother and I that kind of stability. But I know now that it was better than staying in Burma. I know that now.”
But when Thandar met her husband in 2002, she had no idea the depth of his family's involvement in Burmese politics with his dad being a Shan tribe leader and the Chairman of the human rights group called the Shan National League for Democracy, which were dangerous positions to hold in opposition to the military government gaining power at that time.
Nevertheless in 2004, Thandar and her husband had returned to Burma to hold their wedding and with plans to set up a hotel business. But on the 9th of February, a month after they were married, instability transpired once again.
Burmese officials arrested her father-in-law during an annual meeting, and he was not to return again for seven years.
A week later, her husband and his best friend were also taken, put into a room and told to wait for questioning. “They would be held from 6 o’clock in the morning until midnight,” Thandar recalls, “For about a month, they were taken frequently. Every night my mother-in-law and I would wonder if they were coming back.”
The newlywed bride found herself in a whirlwind with her husband being kept and interrogated and her father-in-law in long-term detention. Reflecting back on the situation, Thandar explained:
“I think this changed us as a family quite a lot because it started only a month after we got married. My husband had all the plans for us, I mean; we were going to run a hotel business in Burma. I studied hotel and business management so we were setting up a little hotel by the beach. But it was all taken away within about a month or two. One day in the afternoon, some officials came to the house and told them to bring all of their trucks and cars, which were used to run their family Oversea Courier Service Business, to the office so that they could take pictures. There was no specified reason. But they decided to just keep the vans and told them to go home by bus. Soon after, the OCS business was shut down, the office was cleared out, and paperwork was taken away. Everything changed within a course of a few days. But I couldn't come back and leave my husband or leave things the way they were, so I remained in Burma until it was safe to leave"
She remembers being followed and watched by the authorities who made camp outside of their home: “It was a violation of our privacy, and we felt we couldn’t do anything or go anywhere, and they could do anything at anytime, we lived in fear of what may follow"
Once things were settled as it could be, Thandar decided she needed to return to London and start a new life, again.
“I left for London alone in disguise. I didn’t want the people I left behind to be in trouble because of me. I didn’t know if I was allowed to leave because nothing was certain... It was a difficult decision: Do I leave my husband? Do I go back and never see him again?”
“But I decided to come to London because we needed to start a new life. I couldn’t just sit there.”
Her husband followed after a month and it wasn’t for another seven years when her father-in-law was released that they returned to Burma.
It has now only been two years since her father-in-law was let free, but Thandar has managed to find a sense of normalcy, the “simple, everyday life” that she always wanted; something that she could never quite attain in Burma.
“Although Burma is changing slowly, I don’t feel the change is significant enough for me to feel entirely safe there.”
And now she appreciates the little things about her established life in London: “I like London’s attitude, it’s raw and honest. I feel like I don’t need to shy away, I feel free; I can express myself without concerns. I also enjoy the weather, I know a lot would disagree; I like the unpredictability of the rain, and the temperature. It’s doing its own thing.”
But she maintains her cultural ties to Burma because of her husband, her family and friends at home and almost every day she cooks and eats Burmese food. Her experiences have also led to the deep appreciation for basic freedoms like the ability to openly discuss without having to worry about whose listening or watching, or having ready access to the Internet.
When she isn’t busy working or taking care of her son, Thandar enjoys spending time at various Markets, local parks, and Chinatown to people watch and socialize with friends. She enjoys creating playlists on iTunes, cooking, jogging and her son’s hobbies have become her own. She enjoys photography and networking with people but dislikes what social media is doing to this generation’s ability to foster more “old fashion,” personable social interactions: “I still prefer a hand written letter, it’s more personal,” says Thandar.