Thousands of Burmese to greet Suu Kyi in Indiana

Sep 25, 2012, 6:21 AM EDT
In this Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 photo, Nai Sike and Paung Pakong, right, walk out of Sike's grocery store, where a display of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is displayed in front, in Fort Wayne, Ind.
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's devoted followers are expected to turn out by the thousands Tuesday to hear her speak in an Indiana city where one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States has taken root.

The visit by the 67-year-old Nobel laureate, who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing military rule, marks the zenith of a two-decade influx of Burmese refugees that has brought a new global awareness to Fort Wayne, Ind., a city of 256,000 about two hours north of Indianapolis.

Organizers say security will be tight for Suu Kyi's speech at Memorial Coliseum. At least 7,000 people from as far away as Toronto and Minneapolis have indicated they'll attend the speech, which Suu Kyi will deliver in Burmese with English translations on video. The visit is part of a 17-day trip to the U.S. during which she has met with President Barack Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Since 1991, when a single Burmese refugee resettled in this city 8,000 miles from southeast Asia, thousands more have followed, many of them relocating under a federal program after years in refugee camps in Thailand. They join other political refugees from a host of countries who have made the city a second home since the fall of Saigon in 1975, thanks largely to the help of Catholic Charities.

The 2010 census found 3,800 Burmese in Allen County, but Fred Gilbert, a retired welfare worker who now runs a website designed to help immigrants adjust to American life, says the number may be actually be a few thousand higher because some Burmese identify themselves by ethnic origin rather than nationality.

Signs welcoming Suu Kyi have been showing up throughout the city. Local students gathered recently to make flags depicting the fighting peacock that appears on the flag of the democracy movement in the country also known as Burma.

"She is the hope for the people," said Thiha Ba Kyi, a former dentist who earned an MBA after coming to the U.S. in 1994 and now works for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield and helps the Burmese opposition in exile. "She can bring democracy again in Burma."

For many of the city's Burmese residents, Suu Kyi's visit will be the first tangible connection with the homeland some hope to return to one day. From this unlikely base , Suu Kyi's followers speak out about what's happening in their homeland through Voice of America broadcasts and YouTube videos, lobby Congress for continued economic sanctions and raise money for the opposition in Myanmar.

"They cannot talk in there, so we talk for them here," said Ba Kyi, 57, who hosts a weekly Burmese-language talk show on local television. "We are very staunch and very outspoken. ... I believe that's why Suu Kyi come here."

Many Burmese refugees, like Ba Kyi, left behind careers when they fled their homeland and have had to learn new skills to get a job. U Tun Oo was elected to parliament in the 1990 election won by Suu Kyi's party that was nullified by the military regime and served as finance minister for the elected government in exile.

"I'm finance minister in the jungle," he said with a laugh. "Jungle minister."

Now Tun Oo, who was a construction engineer in Asia, works in a Fort Wayne factory. When he's not working, he heads the local branch of Suu Kyi's party.

"We see people who were university professors and members of parliament who are very accomplished who are doing all kinds of work," said Tom Lewandowski, president of the AFL-CIO's area labor council. "They'll do what it takes to get by."

Refugees qualify for federal government assistance, but Meghan Menchhofer, a staffer at the Burmese Advocacy Center, said that while many newcomers rely on food stamps, only a handful accept cash welfare. The center, which is funded by federal grants and private donations, helps refugees find jobs and homes and navigate issues from laws and customs to getting a driver's license.

"It was different. Vastly different. I knew very little English," said May Ayar Oo, 26, who came to the U.S. at age 16. She graduated in the top five in her high school class and now works as an engineer while attending graduate school.

Patrick Proctor, a member of the board of directors at the Burmese Advocacy Center, said some people in Fort Wayne harbor a negative stereotype of the Burmese who live there. About two years ago, some of that prejudice came to light when a worker at a coin-operated laundry posted a sign barring Burmese "for sanitary reasons," apparently a reference to some people's habit of spitting out the residue from chewing betel nuts.

But many of the city's Burmese seem to have found their way. Burmese-run businesses have popped up across the city, and both the valedictorian and salutatorian at a local high school this year were Burmese.

Former Buddhist monk Nai Sike, 48, and his wife operate a Burmese grocery, one of several in town.

Sike said he would like to stay in the United States because of his business, but he might go back to visit Myanmar. Like the other Indiana Burmese, he is excited about Suu Kyi's visit.

"It's good she's coming here, because of democracy," he said through a translator.

Those attending Tuesday's speech will be eager to hear Suu Kyi's views on sanctions toward Myanmar. Since her release in 2010, she has joined hands with members of the former ruling junta that detained her to push ahead with political reform. She is under pressure from Myanmar President Thien Sein's government to urge the U.S. to remove the restrictions.

Ba Kyi wants to be a part of the change Suu Kyi is expected to bring. He said he wants to teach his people, who have no experience of freedom, what democracy is about.

"I would like to move back," he said. "Hopefully, they'll need educated people who have experience in a democratic country."