The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 01, 2021 1:00 am

Friendship, interrupted

Coup halts city's burgeoning relationship with Myanmar counterpart

Tom Herr

In 2016, in what only a few years before would have been impossible, a Friendship City relationship was established between Fort Wayne and Mawlamyine, Myanmar.

While the citizens of Fort Wayne noticed the beginnings of remarkable downtown development, the citizens of Mawlamyine were just beginning to feel their first sense of freedom as their newly elected national government began to take shape.

For decades, through its sister city program, Fort Wayne has regularly conducted a series of successful international exchanges of students, teachers, performing artists, political leaders and groups of all types with its four sister cities: Takaoka, Japan; Gera, Germany; Plock, Poland; and Taizhou, China.

Since the signing of its Friendship Agreement in 2016, Fort Wayne has sent to Mawlamyine a delegation comprising Purdue Fort Wayne students and teachers. Subsequently, Fort Wayne has hosted two diverse delegations of students and teachers from Mawlamyine, touring our city and participating in classes at PFW.

At our Friendship City's request, we also provided in-person English language instruction for three straight years in a program so admired that the recently deposed civilian government of Myanmar had shown interest in replicating it in universities throughout the country.

COVID-19 prevented our planned teacher exchange and community trip in 2020, and this year we were presented with an almost-unimaginable development. On Feb. 1, the democratically elected parliament in Myanmar was overthrown by the country's military and all exchanges with our Friendship City came to an abrupt halt.

Witnessing the horrific videos of peaceful protesters in Myanmar being arrested, gassed, beaten and killed has given all of us a deep sadness and sense of frustration. COVID-19 cases are on the rise and videos of citizens being refused treatment in their own hospitals present unbelievable images.

Recent reports suggest that the peaceful protests are being replaced by armed conflict and Myanmar may be on the brink of civil war. Those of us who have been working on our programs in Mawlamyine are heartbroken over the sudden revocation of civil rights and the physical abuse and killing of people by their own military.

Our first trip to Myanmar in 2013 occurred within months of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Fort Wayne and President Barack Obama's first trip to Myanmar, the first U.S. president to visit the country.

Shortly before our delegation's arrival, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held its first trade show in the country's former capital city, Yangon. Our own State Department's policy of reengaging with Myanmar after decades of isolation would open for U.S. businesses a new market of almost 60 million people.

During this first trip, our guide and many other citizens we met were too timid to speak of politics and their beloved leader, Suu Kyi. But as each year passed, up to the time of our last trip in December 2019, we noticed a greater sense of freedom in the people and less inhibition in discussing politics and upcoming elections. With each election, Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, defeated the military-backed candidates by greater margins until last November when the NLD won almost 70% of the popular vote.

In a very short time, the people of Myanmar had created a relatively free and democratic country until the military, under the pretext of voter fraud, decided it was not to be. The optimism we all shared for Myanmar has been replaced with dread and a sense of hopelessness.

Thousands of Fort Wayne residents are immigrants of Myanmar, and a second generation is thriving.

In fact, it was our large population of citizens with connections to Myanmar that motivated Fort Wayne Sister Cities to establish a relationship there.

Before the coup, plans were in the works to take the Fort Wayne Ballet to Mawlamyine to perform for our friends in celebration of our fifth anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Agreement.

Sadly, our exchanges have been replaced by weekly demonstrations on our Courthouse Green in support for our friends and relatives in Myanmar.

What can we do to help the residents of our Friendship City?

We keep in contact with our friends via social media, which is available sporadically in Mawlamyine.

Fundraisers promoted on social media are often held here to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Myanmar.

Congress and the world community are regularly imposing various sanctions on Myanmar's leaders and their families.

It is our hope that the seeds of democracy, education and friendship we helped sow in Mawlamyine through our many student and teacher exchange programs will eventually help bring an end to this military regime.

Please support the return of democracy in Myanmar. Support local fundraising efforts and demonstrations. Contact your senators and representatives and encourage them to take all necessary steps to protect the safety of the people of Myanmar.

Tom Herr is a Fort Wayne resident and director emeritus of Fort Wayne Sister Cities International.

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