Political prisoner returns to family after 16 years

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMay 24, 2013 

Myo Aung Thant hadn't seen his family in person for about 16 years.

Imprisoned in his native Burma for his pro-democracy and labor rights activism, he couldn't hold his wife, or tell her he loved her face-to-face.

He couldn't watch their two daughters grow up and have children of their own.

But on Friday night, the 57-year-old walked off a plane at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco and back into their arms. His oldest daughter, May Thant, 31, called out to him.

She wrapped him in a tight embrace the moment he stepped past the security gate.

Thant's wife, Khin Mar, and youngest daughter, Mabel Thant, 25, stood by, waiting for their chance to greet the man they once feared they might never see again.

It was a touching family reunion made even sweeter because for years it seemed impossible.

Mar and Thant were arrested in 1997 for their activism. Mar spent about five years in prison. Thant was sentenced to life plus 10 years.

He finally was freed about a year ago after a government change in Burma -- officially known as Myanmar -- and international pressure to release political prisoners, his family said.

In the Pasco airport, he thanked the United States and the officials and groups, including World Relief in Richland, that made it possible for him to join his wife and daughters in the Tri-Cities, where they have forged a new life. World Relief helped Mar arrange to bring her husband here.

"What can I say? (I'm) really happy. Really happy," Thant said.

May Thant, a self-proclaimed "daddy's girl," couldn't stop smiling as her father grabbed his bags and greeted friends who had come to the airport in celebration.

He doled out plenty of hugs to his three grandchildren, ages three to 11, who were born while he was behind bars.

In an interview earlier in the week, May and her mother acknowledged there would be an adjustment period. But their happiness and anticipation at the coming reunion were obvious.

Mar, 50, said Thant was her first love. She had gone to an airport in Burma with her youngest daughter in 1997 to pick him up after a trip to Thailand when she got a tap on the shoulder, she recalled.

It was military intelligence. "That (was) it," Mar said.

She spent all but one half-hour a day in a small cell while in prison, she said.

When she was released, Mar -- who had run a business with 100 employees -- had no money or identification and had to rebuild her life. She came to the U.S. about seven years ago and soon settled in the Tri-Cities.

Today, she's a U.S. citizen with a job and home near downtown Kennewick.

"I want to say, in the newspaper, first of all, (I really) thank the United States, for resettling my family here," Mar told the Herald. She also said she's grateful to the groups that helped her during the years, including World Relief and Goodwill Industries of the Columbia.

Local World Relief officials were among those at the airport to greet Thant's plane.

Scott Michael, the field office director, said reunions like the one that played out Friday as other travelers hurried past are always joyous -- and this one especially so.

"We're really thrilled about it," Michael said. "We're very excited for the family."

May Thant said her parents are her heroes: Her father, now back with his family after so many years, and her mother, who stayed strong and held onto hope.

"I never thought that I would see him again. Imagine a life sentence with 10 years," she said. "And then we came over here, and I don't know -- a miracle happened."

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