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Local Burmese skeptical about Myanmar leader

Nan Tin

– Eight months ago, Fort Wayne’s Burmese community was preparing for a high-profile visit by a leader of their home country.

Democracy activist, parliament member and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi would be greeted later as a hero by thousands of people gathered to see and hear her at Memorial Coliseum.

Local anticipation seems muted ahead of Washington, D.C., appearances Monday by the top leader of what once was Burma and is now Myanmar. Not only will President Thein Sein be hundreds of miles away from Fort Wayne, but he’s hardly the inspirational figure for Burmese refugees that Suu Kyi is.

Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of Fort Wayne’s Burmese Advocacy Center, said local residents she had talked with were tepid to Thein Sein’s pending arrival in the U.S.

“The majority of people living here are from refugee camps and have not trusted the (Myanmar) government for decades,” she said.

With about 3,900 residents counted in the 2010 census, and possibly many more, Allen County’s Burmese population is among the largest in the United States.

Thein Sein – who will meet Monday at the White House with President Obama, speak at Johns Hopkins University and appear at a dinner for U.S.-Southeast Asia business advocates – has won international praise for implementing democratic reforms in Myanmar in recent years after a half-century of oppressive military rule.

“They’re trying,” Nan Tin said about the administration of Thein Sein, a former military commander. “It’s getting better, and we appreciate that.”

Thein Sein will be the first Burmese head of state to visit the White House since dictator Ne Win met with President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. Thein Sein spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, two days after Suu Kyi was in Fort Wayne.

Nyein Chan, resettlement services director for Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese, said Thein Sein is developing “a better relationship with America. I feel good about that. … The Burmese people hope he is doing the right things, driving the country positively.”

The Obama administration has lifted or relaxed many economic sanctions against Myanmar, and Obama became the first president to travel to the country when he met with Thein Sein in Rangoon in November.

Tun Oo, a local machinist who visited his homeland in December and January, said in an email: “This is the correct time for bilateral relationship. Some Burmese leaders living in U.S. are looking forward to ways to join hands with the Myanmar government.”

More wary of Thein Sein’s government is Fort Wayne resident Thiha Ba Kyi, a health insurance employee who visited his 97-year-old mother in Myanmar in March and April.

“There are many problems; it is chaos,” he said about both the democratic transition and Thein Sein’s inability to resolve ethnic violence in Myanmar.

“We welcome the transition. He allows us to visit our country. We appreciate it,” Thiha Ba Kyi said. “But what is going on on the ground is chaos.”

The White House said this week that Obama plans to discuss with Thein Sein “the many remaining challenges to efforts to develop democracy” in Myanmar and “address communal and ethnic tensions.”

Nan Tin said Burmese refugees want to see “the rule of law” established in their native land along with economic and education improvements.

“Let’s see what can happen with the 2015 elections,” she said. “We want to see how fair the elections will be.”

Myanmar will elect parliament members in 2015. The parliament chooses the president, and Thein Sein, 68, reportedly will not seek another term.