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Zar Ni, left, and U ZaWaNa take a moment to chat during Sunday’s International 88 Generation Conference at IPFW.
Burmese reach out across miles

Activists focus for change

Refugees hope IPFW conference will put political pressure on Myanmar

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Attendees at Sunday’s conference, held at IPFW, took a moment to visit in between presentations. Activists are seeking ways to work collaboratively to resolve ethnic tensions that have troubled the country.
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Speakers took part in a conference Sunday on the IPFW campus. They hope to bring democratic reform to Myanmar and offer support for its people.

They talked, huddled in groups and even spoke via video conferencing over thousands of miles.

The one thing on all their minds was continued democratic reform in their homeland of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

IPFW served as a staging area Saturday and Sunday for a conference that brought former political prisoners and refugees to Fort Wayne and attracted current Burmese citizens interested in political change in the Southeast Asian nation. A similar conference took place last week in Toronto.

Fort Wayne is home to thousands of Burmese refugees. The local Burmese community is among the largest in the United States. How those living in and outside of Burma can combine to force change in the county was the main focus of the conference.

Nyein Chan, 47, a local member of the convening committee, said Sunday about 150 Burmese activists from around the world attended Saturday’s session. He expected fewer Sunday because many people had to travel.

Nyein Chan, resettlement director for Catholic Charities, said conference attendees were especially interested in hearing from Burmese citizens. After listening to them and refugees living in the U.S., Norway, Canada and other countries, organizers will combine thoughts. The goal is to develop a resolution as a tool for reform, he said. Chief among them is a change in the country’s constitution.

“The current constitution, the military constitution, we believe they are not moving to meaningful democratic transition,” Nyein Chan said. “Not yet.”

The group wants to change the law that allows 25 percent of the nation’s lawmakers to be picked from the military, he said.

“If they do want to do meaningful democratic transition they should allow people to pick election fully, a democratic election,” he said.

The activists also are seeking ways to work collaboratively across the miles that divide them from Burma, resolve ethnic tensions that have troubled the country and give equal Burmese citizenship rights to exiles.

“We are now away from the country 20 years, 25 years,” Nyein Chan said. “We are not migrant workers. Because we are here, we are politically refused people. For that we should have equal rights.”

Tun Kyi, Minni Thinn Kyaw and Thein Htun traveled from Burma to the conference. Nyein Chan translated for them.

Tun Kyi identified himself as a former political prisoner. He said he hoped the collaborative effort would pressure Burma’s leaders to carry on democratic reforms.

Minnie Thinn Kyaw agreed that the country’s 2008 constitution has to be changed. She said the main reason she came was because of the help those living outside Burma can offer. She said she wants people living inside and outside of Burma to work together “to make serious developments in Burma.”

Echoing those thoughts, Thein Htun said it is essential that people living in Burma and those living abroad should combine their efforts for change.

Koko Lay traveled to Fort Wayne from his home in San Francisco. He said changes have to be all-inclusive to allow people who want to return to Burma to participate in political reform. The law also needs to be changed to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become a presidential candidate.

The conference coincides with the upcoming 25th anniversary of pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar that began Aug. 8, 1988. The 1988 uprising launched the political career of Aung San Suu Kyi, who would become a prisoner of her nation’s ruling military, receive the Nobel Peace Prize and win election last year to a seat in the country’s fledgling parliament. She visited Fort Wayne in September last year and spoke to a crowd of thousands.

Government restrictions have to be lifted so people can vote for her as a presidential candidate, Koko Lay said.

“So this law has to be changed, too,” he said, “if they really want to open up for democratic reform.”