FORT WAYNE – Aung San Suu Kyi has two good reasons to visit Fort Wayne next week.
“Our leader is coming to Fort Wayne not only for Burmese people but also for all Americans who support her. Because you support her persistently,” local resident U Tun Oo said Wednesday.
Burmese political dissidents and refugees have been arriving in Fort Wayne for more than two decades, fleeing military rulers who kept democracy leader Suu Kyi on house arrest for most of that time. The U.S. Census Bureau counted 3,800 Burmese in Allen County in 2010, but Tun Oo said the figure is closer to 8,000.
Either way, Fort Wayne has among the largest Burmese populations in the U.S.
“One gentleman asked me, ‘Why does Suu Kyi come to Fort Wayne?’ ” city resident Thiha Ba Kyi said at the news conference. “Because this Burmese community from Fort Wayne is very outspoken against the military government and in full support of the democratic transition of Burma. That is why Fort Wayne is very famous in Burma.”
Former political prisoner Suu Kyi, 67, is now a member of the parliament of Myanmar, formerly called Burma. As part of a U.S. trip that is taking her to New York, Washington, Los Angeles and other cities, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner will arrive in Fort Wayne on Monday and appear at the Memorial Coliseum from 9 to 10:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Admission is free. Tun Oo said at least 7,000 people, including 5,000 Burmese from throughout the Midwest, have indicated they will turn out for Suu Kyi’s speech, which will be delivered in Burmese and translated to English. The Coliseum will have seating available for about 10,000 people.
Some area companies, including Vera Bradley Inc., will excuse employees from work to attend the Coliseum program, Tun Oo said.
“We do expect lines on Coliseum (Boulevard). We do expect lines at the door” of the Coliseum, said George McClellan, vice chancellor for student affairs at IPFW, one of the program sponsors.
Doors open at 7:30 a.m. For the most part, McClellan said, seating will be “first come, first served.”
The Burmese community is organizing the program with help from IPFW, the Coliseum, WFWA PBS 39, local government agencies and the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Sponsors are spending at least $8,000 on Suu Kyi’s visit, most of it for Coliseum rent and translation services.
Suu Kyi, who asked to speak in Fort Wayne, is not being paid an appearance fee.
Tom Lewandowski, president of the labor council, said Suu Kyi’s visit should be put in the broader context of Burmese immigrants making Fort Wayne home and the city’s endorsement of their cause.
“This is an important event, but only an event that is part of an ongoing commitment that stretches back to the ’90s and will stretch into the future. This is about peace through freedom and democracy,” Lewandowski said.
Burmese resident Nyein Chan, resettlement director for Catholic Charities, said: “We are happy to be living in Fort Wayne. We are happy to be part of the community of Fort Wayne.”