Han Win Aung, 45, is one of many Burmese in the Fort Wayne community who will be spending next Tuesday morning listening to Aung San Suu Kyi speak at Memorial Coliseum.
Sitting in his living room Thursday afternoon on the south side of Fort Wayne, Han Win Aung talked about his feelings about seeing the democracy icon and former political prisoner of the ruling junta that renamed their homeland Myanmar. Exiles refer to the country as Burma.
“We are very happy to see her and very proud. We believe she can manage our country; we believe our current government cannot. Many people are poor and they cannot afford to go to the hospital. They die too early there.” Han Win Aung said, adding, “She is our mother.”
It is his hope that she will be able to change things in Burma. Thirteen years ago, Han Win Aung, now 45, his wife, Nyo Nyo San, now 37, and their two young children came to the United States from a refugee camp along the Thailand-Burma border.
Han Win Aung was part of the student uprising in Burma on Aug. 8, 1988, and it changed his life forever. For the next several years he became a freedom fighter, a member of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front. At age 20 he trained as a fighter and lived in the jungles. It was during this time he met Nyo Nyo San in a village in Thailand. His wife went into the jungle with him, and Han Win Aung, a medic, delivered both of their children there.
“A lot of people had nothing in Burma and the government was killing people. We wanted human rights. But the government didn't care if they killed men, women, children or Buddhist monks,” Han Win Aung said.
Han Win Aung and his wife are both very modest about their accomplishments, but sitting in their small but beautifully kept ranch home, it is plain to see that the two have come a long way from the jungles of the Burma-Thailand border.
Now they have added another son and a daughter to their family, and both parents have gained their citizenship. That is a huge accomplishment considering Han Win Aung spoke very little English when they arrived and his wife spoke none. It took months of classwork and memorization to take the citizenship test.
Terri Noone, who was Nyo Nyo San's citizenship class instructor, said she made verbal tapes for her so when Nyo Nyo San was sewing at her job she would listen to the tape and follow along in her notebook to learn the 100 questions she would face on the test. The couple saved up three times the cost of the exam, $600, so that she could take it three times if necessary to pass. But she passed it on the first try, Noone said. Nyo Nyo San is looking forward to Suu Kyi's visit, but is still amazed it is really happening.
“I am very surprised; she is my hero,” Nyo Nyo San said.
She had never thought Suu Kyi would ever be able to come to a free country to visit. Suu Kyi was elected prime minister in 1990, but the dictatorship refused to recognize the election results, and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner was put under house arrest for more than a decade the following 20 years.
“I have only seen pictures of her,” Nyo Nyo San said.
She will not be going because her 2-year-old and 1-year-old both are sick, but the two older children – a son, Pai Pai, 19, and daughter, Cheri San, 15, – will be going with their father.
Cheri San, a South Side High School student, said what she knows about Aung San Suu Kyi she has learned from her father, and she is excited to see her.
“We believe in her. We believe she will bring change and manage our country,” Han Win Aung said, adding, “I am surprised they freed her, I still worry about her.”
Some of his friends recently went over to Burma but they didn't feel safe and left. They told Han Win Aung that the government is still arresting people.
“That's why I still worry about Aung San Suu Kyi and other political figures,” said Han Win Aung
He and his wife would like to go back to Burma, to see family and friends; they still send money to Han Win Aung's mother, who is 80.
Nyo Nyo San said she does not want to live there; she likes America where she has her freedom.
A 'wow' moment
On the north side of Fort Wayne in a subdivision off Wallen Road, Ei Ei Phyu, a Burmese immigrant is equally excited to see Suu Kyi.
Unlike Han Win Aung and his family, Ei Ei Phyu, now 29, and her family came from Burma in 1999 on a visa looking for better educational opportunities. She now has two sons and a husband. She is close to finishing her RN degree, after getting her LPN in 2006. She currently works for the St Joseph Community Health Foundation.
“We are so proud of her, Aung San Suu Kyi is my personal hero and the hero to millions of people around the world,” Ei Ei Phyu said.
She said she was speechless when she found out Aung San Suu Kyi was coming to Fort Wayne.
“All I could say was wow!” Ei Ei Phyu said.
Some of her friends from New York City invited her to see Suu Kyi there and she had planned to go, but when she found out Suu Kyi was coming to Fort Wayne, she canceled those plans. She said most people around her age, whether American or Burmese, seem to know who Suu Kyi is and are really happy about having an opportunity to hear the Nobel Prize winner speak. Ei Ei Phyu said she has heard a lot of people from the local community may not attend because it is a workday, but she is hoping they come anyway.
“I am so proud of her, she is the only Burmese who has ever been to the Oval Office, Ei Ei Phyu said smiling.
Some of her family's friends went back to Burma to find out what they can do there. Ei Ei Phyu said in the speeches Suu Kyi gave in London and D.C. she told Burmese who no longer live in Burma that they will have to make their own decisions on if they will return to Burma or not. She told people if they want to go back and they have an education, they could help educate people, or if they have a lot of money they could donate money.
She is hopeful that after this visit everyone in the community will know where Burma is. She said she feels like she is always explaining to people in the United States where her homeland is.
“I always tell them it is between China and India,” Ei Ei Phyu said with a laugh.
She said some of her friends have talked about waiting outside the coliseum starting at 2 a.m., just like the Thanksgiving Day sales, but she doesn't have to worry about that; she is going with a group from work. They have seats reserved.