FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) — Thousands of elated supporters greeted Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi with rapturous cheers and a standing ovation as she took to an arena stage in an Indiana city that is home to one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States.
The 67-year-old Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest for opposing Myanmar’s military rulers and was recently elected a member of parliament, is on a 17-day tour of the United States. She has already met with President Barack Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal. Suu Kyi voiced optimism for democracy in her Southeast Asian home.
“The important thing is to learn how to resolve problems. How to face them and how to find the right answers through discussion and debate,” the Nobel Laureate told the approximately 3,000 people gathered at the Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“We should all have a conscience and not exploit our role in politics,” she said. Suu Kyi delivered her speech in Burmese with an English translation by video.
Thousands of Burmese refugees live in Fort Wayne, and hundreds of supporters lined up outside the arena hours before Suu Kyi was due to speak. As the doors opened at 7:30 a.m., supporters flooded inside to claim the best seats.
Factory worker Kaung Shein, 42, said he had been among the approximately 1 million students who took part in a failed pro-democracy uprising to protest Burma’s military-backed regime in August 1988. Oxford-educated Suu Kyi rose to prominence during that period.
“We are from the 88 Generation,” Kaung Shein said. “We align with her. … We are very excited to be here. We’ve been waiting for 20 years.”
Thousands of the 1988 protesters were killed and tens of thousands more — including Suu Kyi — spent years as political prisoners. Her National League for Democracy party was for years stymied by the junta’s iron grip on the country, but Suu Kyi voiced cautious hope.
“The differences and problems we have amongst ourselves, I think we can join hands and reconcile and move forward and solve any problems,” she said.
Myanmar’s half century of military rule has made the country something of a pariah in the international community, inviting decades of crippling sanctions. But President Thein Sein has introduced political and economic reforms in recent years, and his separate visit this week to the United Nations General Assembly — the first to the U.S. by a Myanmar leader in more than 40 years — raised hopes that some of those restrictions could be eased.
Since 1991, when a single Burmese refugee resettled in Fort Wayne — about two hours north of Indianapolis and 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.
For some of Fort Wayne’s Burmese residents, Suu Kyi’s visit is the first tangible connection with the homeland some hope to return to one day.
Thiya 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, 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.”
Many Burmese refugees left behind careers and have had to learn new skills while others rely on food stamps to survive.
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. 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.
“She is the hope for the people,” said Ba Kyi, who helps the Burmese opposition in exile. “She can bring democracy again in Burma.”
But in her Tuesday speech, Suu Kyi cautioned her supporters — this time in English — that she is not infallible.
“A popular leader is not the same as a good leader,” Suu Kyi said. “I hope you keep that in mind.”
Associated Press writer Charles Wilson contributed to this report.