FORT WAYNE, Indiana—Myo Myint lost most of his right arm and right leg and several fingers fighting for the Burmese government army before he began working against the military and became a political prisoner.
The 49-year-old political refugee would like to return to his homeland one day, but he does not believe it will happen, even after hearing Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi say she would work to make sure people like him could come back.
Myint was among thousands of elated supporters who greeted Suu Kyi with cheers, tears and a standing ovation Tuesday as she took to the stage at the coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the fourth stop on her 17-day US tour.
Like Suu Kyi, Myint was imprisoned in 1989. But Myint, who spent 15 years as a political prisoner, said he does not believe Suu Kyi will be able to help him go back to Burma. That is because he says he is too well-known for working against the junta, having been featured in an HBO documentary called “Burma Soldier.”
“She cannot do anything. She is not in the power,” he said.
Sixty-seven-year-old Suu Kyi, who was recently elected to Parliament after spending 15 years under house arrest for opposing Burma’s military rulers, voiced optimism for democracy in her Southeast Asian home.
“The important thing is to learn how to resolve problems. How to face them and how to find the right answers through discussion and debate,” the Nobel Laureate told the more than 5,000 people who gathered to hear her speak. Fort Wayne is home to one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States.
Myint said he lost his arm and leg in a battle with communist insurgents while serving in the Burma Army. After he left service, he switched sides, meeting with resistance groups and working against the military rulers.
“We were looking together to find a way to end the civil war,” he said.
Suu Kyi rose to prominence during a failed pro-democracy uprising to protest Burma’s military-backed regime in 1988. Thousands of the 1988 protesters were killed and tens of thousands more—including Oxford-educated Suu Kyi—spent years as political prisoners. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party was subsequently stymied by the junta’s iron grip on the country.
But Suu Kyi voiced cautious hope on Tuesday.
“The differences and problems we have amongst ourselves, I think we can join hands and reconcile and move forward and solve any problems,” she said. Suu Kyi delivered most of her speech—and answered most questions—in Burmese, with an English translation by video.
Since 1991, when a single Burmese refugee resettled in Fort Wayne—around two hours north of Indianapolis and 8,000 miles from Burma—thousands more have followed, many of them relocating under a federal program after years in refugee camps in Thailand.
After his imprisonment, Myint spent three years in Thailand before applying to become a political refugee. A brother who had fought against the Burma military rulers in 1988 already had moved to Fort Wayne.
Both were excited to attend Suu Kyi’s speech on Tuesday. Though Myint does not believe he will ever be able to return, he was pleased to hear her say she would work to clear the way for the return of those who left.
“I would love to go back but I have no chance,” he said.
For some Burmese residents, Suu Kyi’s visit was the first tangible connection with the homeland they hope to one day return.
“I would appreciate and be very grateful if you could look back to your home country, which is Burma,” she said.
Burma’s half-century of military rule invited crippling international sanctions. But President Thein Sein, who is visiting New York this week, has introduced political and economic reforms in recent years, and the US administration is considering easing the main plank of its remaining sanctions, a ban on imports.
Suu Kyi, who already has met with President Barack Obama and received Congress’ highest honor, said the sanctions were effective in pushing the junta to reform but that “they should now be lifted” so that Burma can rebuild its economy.
“We cannot only depend on external support and support of our friends from other nations. We should also depend on ourselves to reach this goal,” she said.