FORT WAYNE, INDIANA — In her first visit to the United States in more than 40 years, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited the Midwestern state of Indiana, home to one of the largest Burmese communities in America. Immigrants and native-born Americans consider it a historic occasion for the Hoosier state.
The last time Nyein Chan saw his role model, Aung San Suu Kyi, he was a student leader in the uprising against Burma’s government in 1988.
They met as part of a group discussing Burma’s path to democracy.
“This was on September 13th, 1988, before the military took over September 18th, 1988," said Nyein Chan.
That was the date of the bloody crackdown that forced Nyein Chan to flee his country, while Aung San Suu Kyi remained in Burma, mostly under house arrest.
Twenty-four years and one week later, they were reunited on the stage of Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Memorial Coliseum, when Nyein Chan introduced her.
“This is very, very important, and a very, very huge event not only for the Burmese community, but also for the American community living in Fort Wayne," he said.
Many people in Fort Wayne already were aware that thousands of Burmese live among them.
But Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit provided North Side High School teacher Erin Baumgartner with an opportunity:
“Her visit has been in the news a lot, and that has prompted a lot of conversation and discussion, you know 'Who is she?' And you get into the background and the history of Burma, and how we have so many Burmese refugees here," said Baumgartner.
“This is going to be like the largest teachable moment Fort Wayne has had in a while," he said.
Jose Rodriguez was among roughly 1,000 students who joined about 5,000 people, many of them Burmese, to hear Aung San Suu Kyi speak.
And although she had to follow Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech by English translation displayed on large screens, Kat Meinzen says the event brought to life, for her, a figure she has only read about in textbooks.
“It’s a huge historic moment. I can tell my grandkids later, I was there, I heard this woman speak. I was there for the revolution of Burma, to hear her fight for their freedoms. I can tell my grandkids I was part of this," said Meinzen.
For Nyein Chan, who was physically in Burma for the 1988 revolution, reuniting with the woman who is the symbol of Burmese democracy worldwide is a moving moment.
“We are from Burma… We never forget about our country, and so this is our leader, and we should follow and we should support Aung San Suu Kyi," he said.
Support that Aung San Suu Kyi certainly has in the United States.