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Utica's Burmese community excited about Aung San Suu Kyi visit to US

Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is on the third day of her tour of the United States. Wednesday she will be honored at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In the audience to witness Suu Kyi receiving the highest honor Congress can give, will be several Burmese refugees now living in Utica.

Nine leaders of the Burmese refugee community in Utica will be among the lucky few present when Burmese pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi receives the Congressional Gold Medal.  Before they left central New York for Washington, several gathered to talk about the honor.   Aung Joew Myin expects the day will be emotional for him.

"If I see her personally at the event -- Congressional Gold Medal -- I might be crying! So exciting, this is true!" said Myin.

In 1988, Myin was a university student in the Burma's capital city of Rangoon when events changed his life, and that of Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I was one of the students who rose up against the dictatorship and call for democracy," said Myin. "I was arrested and sentenced for my activities."  

The army killed thousands of students in the protests. Myin spent seven years in prison. After his release he joined the underground opposing the military junta ruling the country.  He was forced to flee to Thailand before coming to the United States 12 years ago.

For Aung San Suu Kyi, those same protests transformed her from a private citizen to a international icon who has been compared to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The daughter of Burma’s national hero, she was living with her husband in England when she returned home to care for her sick mother. The turmoil of the time quickly thrust her into politics. When her party won a parliamentary election, the military government cracked down hard, annulled the election and placed her under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years.

In Utica, Soe Htot can barely contain his enthusiasm about seeing Suu Kyi receive her award.  I am so honored and so devoted, because of what she is doing for the people -- because of what she is doing for the country," said Htot.

Htot’s displays his pride proudly -- wearing a white t-shirt with Suu Kyi’s picture on the front.

One thing she is trying to change, all the people in the country, to live without fear," said Htot, in accented English. "To live without fear,  to sleep, you go bed without fear, you wake up with out fear. that’s what she change."

Aung San Suu Kyi is able to travel now because in the past year Myanmar -- as Burma is now known -- has undergone a unexpected and dramatic political change. A new civilian government has released political prisoners, ended censorship, and held the elections that gave Suu Kyi  a seat in Parliament.

But she must tread very carefully because the civilian leaders are former generals, says Utican Saw La Kler. "It’s like lip service, you know. cosmetic changes," he said. "So we have to see what the government will do in the future."     

Most of the 3,000 Burmese in Utica are Karen, Christians from a region near the border with Thailand. The country has seven distinct ethnic groups, and the government has long been at war with several of them. In her recent speeches, Suu Kyi has called for respecting the rights of minorities.  That is why Kaw Soe Asa Win is going to Washington.

"To show that even we are in foreign land, almost the majority of the people of Burma support her," said Win. "If i go there I [will] put on my Karen costume to show that Karen also meet her and support her coming to [the] United States."

With quiet dignity, determination and a commitment to non-violence, Aung San Suu Kyi has become a symbol of democracy all over the world.  In Myanmar, and in Utica, she embodies the hopes of her people for a better future.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's storiesat their website, nyrp-uc.org.