Three hours before the scheduled start of Suu Kyi’s visit, Burmese Americans started lining up inside the LA Convention Center - the same place in which many of them became naturalized US citizens over the years.
"We are waiting for this day," said Zin Mar Htun. She stood at the front of the line wearing an embroidered turquoise dress and orchids in her hair. She and her family arrived as political refugees in the mid-1990s. Her father was involved in Burma’s pro-democracy movement, and they haven’t been able to return since they left.
“I know America is great, but we still need to go back and help our country, because our country is very underdeveloped," said Htun. "Mainly I want to help with education so I do want to go back. If they open up, then it will be better—right now, we’re still scared to go back in case something goes wrong.”
For many younger Burmese-Americans like Htun, who's in her late 20s, Suu Kyi’s visit to this country suggests the promise of a truly democratic Burma, and an opportunity to return someday.
After almost two decades of house arrest and her election to her country’s parliament this spring, Suu Kyi enjoys an international status similar to that of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela shortly after his release from prison. During her US visit, she’s made a point to reach out to the Burmese diaspora – the better to improve US-Burma relations and trigger economic development back home.
Some critics maintain that she has made too many political compromises with Burma’s current government; it includes many of the military leaders who kept her under house arrest. But Lal Thanga, a dentist by trade and one of the organizers of Suu Kyi’s visit here, said those criticisms aren’t completely fair.
“Some people might criticize and say she can’t speak up anymore," Thanga said. "But, to me, this is part of the democratic process. She has to deal with a lot of things that we don’t know; we don’t know the hardships she’s going through. If we don’t support her, what can she do? So we have to keep on supporting her.”
About 100,000 people of Burmese descent live in the United States. The biggest concentration – close to 5,000 – are in the Los Angeles area. Some of these refugees and immigrants belong to ethnic minorities that have been persecuted since the 1970s. Groups including the Rohingya, Keren, and Kachin do not qualify for Burmese citizenship under current law.
“Ms. Suu Kyi should focus on the human rights first, then we can talk about cooperating with Mr.Thein Sein, Burma’s current president," said Ko Ko Naing, a 26 year old from the Rohingya Muslim minority who obtained political asylum in this country nine years ago, sitting at a cafe near the LA Convention Center.
Naing peacefully opposes Suu Kyi’s visit, he said, because he wants people to know that not all is well in Burma. The West, he added, earnestly supports Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy, and seems eager for a democratic transition as it overlooks the needs of the wider Burmese population.
“She’s ignoring all the ethnic minorities," he said. "She’s only focusing on the political prisoners that have been fighting with the NLD members. She’s ignoring the core issues of all the ethnic minorities, their education needs, their basic food needs, their shelter needs.”
When Suu Kyi showed up exactly on time for her presentation, a couple of thousand cheering Burmese welcomed her waving the red flags of her political party. She fielded questions from the audience in Burmese, except for one in English: ‘What would you do if you became president?’ That’s too speculative, she responded, adding, ‘why don’t you ask the president what he will do, now that he’s president?’