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Burmese in US Oppose Upcoming Burma Elections

The scheduled November 7 general election in Burma, the first in 20 years, is drawing widespread criticism. The ruling military government is restricting foreign media and observers from monitoring the elections. And the United Nations' Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, calls the election process "deeply flawed." Ft. Wayne, Indiana is the home to the largest Burmese refugee community in the U.S., where many doubt the elections will be free and fair.

Phyo Than fled Burma in 1991, during a government crackdown on political dissidents in the wake of that country's last general election.

Almost 20 years later, he now runs a small restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, living in exile as he waits for a change in the Burmese government.

"They have control of everything. Everybody is scared," said Phyo Than.

From the bits and pieces he learns from family members still living in the country, Than is not hopeful Burma's general elections November 7 will lead to the change he seeks.

"I think that this election is not the right election," he said.

Than is not alone.

Fort Wayne is home to approximately 5,000 Burmese, mostly refugees who have settled in the small town in the eastern part of Indiana.

Most of the community here views the upcoming Burmese elections as illegitimate.

At the Burmese Advocacy Center, Executive Director Minn Myint Nan Tin says the country's election history gives reason for concern.

"We had an election in 1990, and the National League for Democracy won the election, and unfortunately, the power didn't transfer to the elected party," said Minn Myint Nan Tin.

Nan Tin is also a refugee, forced into exile after the 1988 student uprising that led to the rise of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won a majority of votes in Burma's last election in 1990, but the ruling Burmese military government rejected the results.

Nan Tin says many of the same themes in that elections are relevant today.

"I think people still believe in this theme - to become a democratic government, and give a right, and not to force them to vote, and right to speak up, and a better quality of life, and I think this is what people have looked for a long time," she said.

Also looking for a better quality of life, Kun Wekha's family paid a price for speaking out against the government.

"My Dad was involved in politics in Burma, and also they were arrested," said Kun Wekha. "And my sister and my brother, they were arrested too because of their political involvement."

Wekha also works at the Burmese Advocacy Center in Fort Wayne, where he too lives in exile. He believes the upcoming elections are neither free nor fair because the person who symbolizes the Democracy movement in his country remains in detention.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest, and also they abolished many ethnic political parties," he said. "They should all be included in the general election. Not only is it not a free and fair election, it is not all inclusive."

For most Burmese living in the United States, voting in the upcoming election is not an option.

But restaurant owner Phyo Than and dozens more from Fort Wayne plan to exercise their right to free speech in the United States by joining a November protest rally in Washington D.C. - together with other Burmese from across the U.S. Than hopes the international community will listen to their concerns, and ultimately reject the outcome of Burma's November 7 election.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.