Indiana city of refugees eagerly awaits arrival

Aung San Suu Kyi at the University of Louisville. With her is Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.).
Aung San Suu Kyi at the University of Louisville. With her is Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.). (SCOTT UTTERBACK / Courier-Journal)
Posted: September 25, 2012

FORT WAYNE, Ind. - Eight thousand miles separate southeast Asia from the American Midwest, but when Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visits an Indiana city on Tuesday, it will be a kind of homecoming.

Fort Wayne, home to one of the United States' largest Burmese populations, has become an unlikely base for opposition to the country's former military regime.

Here, Suu Kyi's followers meet regularly, criticizing what's happening in their homeland through Voice of America broadcasts and YouTube videos, lobbying Congress for continued economic sanctions, and raising money for the opposition in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"They cannot talk in there, so we talk for them here," said Thiha Ba Kyi, 57, a former dentist who earned an MBA after coming to the United States in 1994 and now 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."

The visit by Suu Kyi, 67, a 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 the city of 256,000 people two hours north of Indianapolis.

Since 1991, when a single Burmese refugee resettled here, 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, where Fort Wayne is located, 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 be a few thousand higher because some Burmese identify themselves by ethnic origin rather than nationality.

Many of those residents plan to turn out Tuesday when Suu Kyi speaks to a crowd expected to number more than 7,000 at Memorial Coliseum. The visit is part of a 17-day U.S. visit during which she has met with President Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Signs welcoming her have shown up throughout the city. Students gathered recently to make flags depicting the fighting peacock that appears on the flag of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.

"She is the hope for the people," said Ba Kyi, who 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 in years, even decades, with the homeland some hope to return to one day.

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 press the United States to remove the restrictions.

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