On a quiet, cool evening just days before Myanmar’s first polls in 20 years, a rowdy group of vibrant middle-aged men sat comfortably in a softly-lit, charming “tea shop” along the narrow streets of Mae Sot in western Thailand.

Around them hung a cloud of pungent smoke from imported cigars called “Heaven”… the heady aroma like that of a weathered carpet left out in the rain too long. 

A bucket of ice, some glasses, and a half-empty bottle of local rum like chess pieces on the table. 

On the walls – old photographs and muted paintings: the revolutionary Che Guevara, Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and iconic rainbow images of endless ethnic faces. 

Littered amongst that were banners and stickers calling for “freedom” and “peace” in all sorts of pained places. 

Ironically, a small fish tank which seemed to glow from within sat almost invisibly by the well-worn sofa.

The scene: held together by a soulful African tune weaving its heavy tendrils through the evening’s weary radiance. Loud, raucous laughter erupted frequently from the crowded table of middle-aged men. The camaraderie evident, and the energy vibrating from them, almost tangible despite their seemingly relaxed demeanour.

It was like a reunion of old school friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. And yet there was also an air of familiarity about them – as if they gathered like this weekly. And maybe, they did. In another lifetime. Or "on another planet", as they joked.

They were, after all, a unique "band of brothers". A handful of comrades inebriated on the freedom denied them for so long. All of them former political prisoners from Myanmar seeking refuge here, across the narrow river, in Thailand.

"What is this Myanmar?" the most vocal of them said. "I love Burma, not Myanmar. I am Burmese!"

Eighteen years he was in prison for opposing the military junta that continues to rule his nation. His father, an army officer, was dismissed from service for the errant son’s extra-curricular activities. When the ex-Colonel died, his incarcerated son didn't find out until a decade later.

"But my father understood," the recently-freed son says now. "My family understood."

A pause, then an amendment: "Understands ... my family understands."

He looks directly into your eyes and smiles. But there is still a hint of uncertainty in that statement, hidden in the folds of his strong voice.  His family held a service in memorial of him years ago – thinking he was dead.

'Brutally tortured'

He says it was an unusual reality he was released into after serving his time for high treason. An unknown world where names and places had changed, and the three-month old daughter he had to leave behind was now a young woman in university and hiding a boyfriend from her only living parent.

He laughs at the thought, and it is clear the idea almost makes him feel closer to his grown-up baby. It's a usual thing for children to do, he offers, and he is still a stranger to her after all.

"I was brutally tortured in prison. I have lots of wounds. My ribs, my head. Everything broken. But I was lucky, I can say now - I survived. I can stand. Many others died in prison. There are others in worse positions than me."

His smile is brighter than the fish tank's light, and it is obvious he means it.

A few minutes listening to the chatter at this table and it is evident that for them, despite all they've been through, the proverbial glass is always half-full.

Seeking asylum

There are many others with similar stories and similar scars who have managed to remain just as optimistic.

"Things won’t change so easily in Burma we have to be patient," the vocal one shares.

It is a table of patient, undefeated men who still struggle but count themselves lucky.

"We have filed for asylum," says another in the group. "But government and the UNHCR seem to be playing volleyball with our status."

He guffaws, as do the others, in on the joke, who mimic passing a ball around. "We are stateless, neither here nor there. But we make do ... in the middle."

More laughter from these patient men as the joker gets up to head home. "He still won't tell us where he lives," says the vocal one. "It is like some big secret for him – so the SPDC can't find him." 

A paranoia he got used to living across the river under a military regime. It is a fear they all have. Of the enemy still being able to hunt them down one by one.

"Sometimes I think prison is better," the vocal one again. At least it is a world he knows how to navigate. The deceptive comfort of habit. But the almost well-concealed sadness in his eyes lets you know he doesn't really mean it. 

'Wonderful world'

There is a sullen sadness in all their eyes, sprinkled with a smattering of hope. All these men have lost years of their lives – and yet, they have no regrets.

They are alive. And free. And continue to fight for change in their homeland.

In a cosy café dedicated to freedom, with nostalgia dripping from the walls, a group of patient men – youthful and idealistic still – sit and wonder about their nation's future across the nearby river. They raise their glasses in longing and toast to return.

They are alive and free ... and they can wait.

The soothing gravel voice of Louis Armstrong begins to cry out of the speakers over head:  I see trees of green, red roses too...

It's a wonderful world. They laugh again.

They are the lucky ones.