Myanmar pro-democracy leader’s election gives expatriates hope

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets supporters as she travels across her constituency in Kawhmu. The elections seen as a test of the government's budding reforms, with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi standing for a seat in parliament for the first time.
(Soe Than Win / AFP/Getty Images)

Burmese expatriates in Southern California love to talk about their homeland — its natural beauty, its people, its history. But, even after they leave Myanmar, many fear talking about the politics of the country also known as Burma.

The election to parliament Sunday of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi may begin to change that, some said.

The election that resulted in a claimed victory for Suu Kyi and at least 10 other members of her party, the National League for Democracy, was the ruling junta’s latest step to try to persuade the international community to ease crippling economic sanctions imposed in protest of the military’s brutal grip on the Southeast Asian country.

The junta casts a shadow even over Burmese expats, said Maung Kyi, editor of the Mandalay Gazette, a Burmese-language newspaper published in Arcadia and distributed nationally. The military regime is so widely feared that many local Burmese are hesitant to speak freely out of concern that their relatives in Myanmar would face harassment or worse.

“When we gather or have ceremonies in monasteries or churches, they are still afraid to talk about democracy or the NLD or Aung San Suu Kyi,” the newspaper’s Kyi said. “Now that Suu Kyi got elected, the fear will be gone, and they will come out and talk very freely about democracy.”

Kyi said about 30,000 Burmese live in Southern California, many of them in the San Gabriel Valley. The election of Suu Kyi — a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was kept under house arrest for years for promoting democracy — was big news among Burmese around the world, he said. Known in Myanmar as the Lady, Suu Kyi, 66, has worked for democracy in her country for a quarter of a century, famously walking toward rifles that soldiers had trained on her in one standoff.

“Suu Kyi represents all Burmese people, and she is the symbol of democracy,” Kyi said. “So everybody is very excited and very happy and overwhelmed about the news.”

Pit Lim settled in Monterey Park after fleeing the capital, Yangon, eight years ago. He said he viewed Suu Kyi’s election as a sign that the government is ready to change.

“It is a very good sign,” he said. “If she is at the parliament, there will be a lot of changes.”

But not everyone was so hopeful.

One seminary student from Myanmar said he was surprised that Suu Kyi decided to run for election in the first place. If she and her party allies are seated, it is hard to see how their relatively small number will make a difference in the 664-member parliament, said the Southern California student who asked that his name not be used because he plans to return to Myanmar.

“The government is trying to get attention from the international community by making an election,” he said. “But there are still a lot of human rights abuses in the ethnic areas. We are still in a wait-and-see situation.”

The results were announced Sunday by the NLD on a large screen outside its headquarters; the party contended Suu Kyi garnered 82% of the vote.

Phone-yaung Oo of Monterey Park said he was excited but worried that the government could announce different results.

“They have a long history of cheating,” said Oo, who lost a bid for parliament in 1990 on the ticket of a party sympathetic to the NLD.