He made a new life, rising from dishwasher to an economist with a six-figure salary. But his heart never left Myanmar, and armed with a PhD, he returned home as a democratic transition took hold, leading to his appointment in 2017 as deputy governor of the central bank — where he served alongside others who had fought for democracy three decades earlier.
Just after dawn on Feb. 1, five soldiers appeared at Bo Bo Nge’s home in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, and demanded he come with them, according to his wife. She and his friends have not heard from him since.
Bo Bo Nge’s fate, along with that of other intellectuals, lawyers and young leaders detained in the military coup that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government, once again epitomizes dashed hopes for a better future in Myanmar. These reformers and technocrats, whose skills and experience helped salvage the country’s antiquated financial system in recent years, are now silenced and subject to the whims of isolationist generals.
At the same time, Myanmar’s security forces are cracking down on protesters, killing 18 on Sunday. More than 1,130 people, including Bo Bo Nge, have been arrested since the coup.
His predicament is made more urgent by his health issues and the fragile state of Myanmar’s economy, already battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Banks have closed their doors as hundreds of thousands of people, including tellers, resist the coup by refusing to go to work, pushing the economic system closer to collapse. The few military-linked banks that remain open have restricted customer numbers, while the central bank is limiting withdrawals across financial institutions, raising fears of a cash shortage.
“When someone like Bo Bo arrived back in Myanmar, it was like a bottle of water to a person in the desert,” said Ba Win, a former provost of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, who helped Bo Bo Nge move to the United States. Bo Bo Nge, he added, “had the intellectual training and discipline to look at economic issues in a way that transcended parochial political interests.”
In an interview with Frontier magazine, Win Thaw, the military’s chosen replacement for Bo Bo Nge, accused protesters and those participating in the civil disobedience movement of “destroying their own country’s economy.”
“Policies differ from one government to another, but they should have a common goal, which is to develop the country and not trouble the people,” he said. The military government, he added, is “doing their best.”
An immigrant story
Bo Bo Nge’s first stint in detention was at Yangon’s Insein prison, where he served more than four years for participating in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which the military regime brutally crushed. The sprawling complex is one of the city’s most visible landmarks, where behind towering metal gates prisoners were subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment. There, Bo Bo Nge’s health began to deteriorate, and his teeth rotted from neglect, friends and family say.
Locked up alongside academics and intellectuals, he was exposed to lofty conversations about history, economics and philosophy. He and his fellow prisoners would bury smuggled English dictionary pages under the muddy floors of their cells, studying them furiously when guards were not around. By the time he was released in 1993, Bo Bo Nge was fluent, and after a stint exporting taro stems harvested from Myanmar’s Inle Lake to South Korea, he moved to America’s lush, mountainous Berkshires, where he attended community college.
“He was immediately helpful, kind and so good-natured,” said Marion Lathrop, 84, who hosted Bo Bo Nge with her husband, Don, then a professor at Berkshire Community College. “It was kind of hard to grasp the fact that someone with that nature could have gone through that kind of ordeal.”
Immediately, friends said, Bo Bo Nge got down to business, acquiring a driver’s license and a car to drive between his odd jobs and college. In 2001, two years after his arrival, he won a scholarship to Bard College, and after graduation, he pursued a master’s degree in economics at Johns Hopkins University.
Through those years, he maintained a long-distance love with his future wife, Hnin Wai Lwin, better known by her nickname Me Kyi, whom he met on Inle Lake at her shop where she sold trinkets under a famed pagoda. Their international calls were a source of entertainment for her village — where residents could listen in on a central broadcast as phones were scarce — before she joined him in Massachusetts seven years after his departure, according to several friends.
His first job was at a subsidiary of the American Institute of Economic Research, where he eventually earned six figures — epitomizing the American immigrant success story. Colleagues were “immediately struck by his brilliance,” said Seth Hoffman, now vice president of that subsidiary, American Investment Services.
“Given his particular skill set, Bo Bo could have gone on, if he was reoriented in a different direction, to be on a bond desk in a major investment bank,” Hoffman said. “He could have had a more comfortable life.”
Economy on the brink
But Bo Bo Nge, heartened by a hopeful yet uncertain military-led transition to democracy that began in 2010, wanted to do “something more than make money,” according to Ba Win. Inspired by a conversation the two had about a lack of skilled leaders in Myanmar — the military shuttered its best universities after the 1988 uprising and reopened them only in 2014 — Bo Bo Nge pursued a doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where Suu Kyi was a research student in the 1980s.
When he went back to join the government as deputy central bank governor in 2017, the military had ceded some control to a civilian leadership and the economy was making great strides. Poverty had been halved from a decade prior, growth was picking up, and reformists were driving policy changes, keeping down inflation and modernizing the central bank. In the recent coup, several of Suu Kyi’s leading economic advisers were detained, including Australian economist Sean Turnell and Min Ye Paing Hein, a former World Bank economist who was the deputy industry minister. None have been heard from since they were taken by authorities.
A general strike on Feb. 22, meanwhile, added momentum to Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement. Many taking part in the resistance say sacrificing the economy is their only way to bring down the junta and achieve democracy.
Zaw Zaw, a 41-year-old garment factory owner in Yangon, said he sold an apartment and his car to support those who are forgoing a paycheck to participate in acts of disobedience against military rule. Soon he will run out of things to sell, he admits, but says he will do anything to keep the resistance afloat.
“The country’s economy was already in danger” before the coup, he said. “Whether or not the generals hold an election in a year as promised, the economy will collapse anyway. So it is worthwhile to sacrifice everything to bring them down.”
Asking for Daddy
Since her husband was taken on Feb. 1, Hnin Wai Lwin has had trouble sleeping and has lost her appetite. Memories of basic facts — when they arrived in the United States, her husband’s age — are fading or have become confused. She has moved back to Shan state up north, away from the military-run capital, Naypyidaw, for her safety and that of their 5-year old son, who she said is always asking for his father, unable to comprehend what has happened.
She cannot stop thinking about the health of her husband, who is in his 50s, and whether he has run out of the limited supply of medicines she packed in a bag before he left with the soldiers. In an interview, she said Bo Bo Nge was suffering from gastrointestinal disease and hypertension, for which he needs medical treatment.
“I am also not in good health, and we are not together,” she said. “I am very sorry. We should be together, whatever the circumstance.”
Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon contributed to this report.