Thursday, November 19, 2015

Burmese refugees in Louisville hopeful after pro-democracy party win

Hundreds of Louisville residents have been paying special attention in the last few days to events about 8,600 miles away, in Burma.

The country, also known as Myanmar, held democratic elections last week for the first time in a generation, with the National League for Democracy scoring an overwhelming victory.

Flag of Burma

A University of Louisville professor and a Burma native told Insider Louisville they are looking at the developments with hope – but also with some trepidation, because democratic movements previously have been quashed by military rulers.

Burma, west of Thailand, has been ruled by a military government since a coup in 1962. After democratic elections in 1990, which the NLD also won, the military rejected the results and held on to power.

Military rule has been dominated by lawlessness, repression and executions of ethnic minorities in Burma, which is slightly smaller than Texas, but has a population of about 56 million. Life expectancy is 66 years, and per capita GDP is $4,700, less than one tenth of the per capita GDP in the U.S.

The National League for Democracy’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest for 15 years before her release in 2010. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy of Burma, which just won elections there, poses with Jason Abbott, director and Aung San Suu Kyi endowed chair of the Center for Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville, in 2012, during Suu Kyi’s visit to Louisville.

Many of the prominent political candidates who won in the 1990 elections were arrested, jailed and tortured, according to Jason Abbott, the director and Aung San Suu Kyi endowed chair of the Center for Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville.

For much of the population, military rule meant restrictions on internal movement, with leaving the country being near impossible, Abbott said. The military also conducted campaigns against ethnic minorities, forcing many, especially members of the Karen, to flee to neighboring Thailand, where they languished in crowded refugee camps.

Some of the Burmese refugees have migrated to the U.S. and specifically Kentucky, in partbecause of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s interest in Burma and his support for Suu Kyi, who visited Kentucky and the University of Louisville in 2012.

Journey to Louisville

Eh Nay Thaw was 2 years old when his family, including his parents and six siblings, fled from Eastern Burma with hundreds of others to a refugee camp near the Thai capitol, Bangkok.

Eh Nay Thaw

Thaw, now 20, said that life in the camp, which held 9,000 people, was difficult. If Thai authorities caught Burmese refugees outside of the camp, they would be arrested as illegal immigrants. Food consisted of the basics – rice, beans, salt – and was supplied by the United Nations. Water was available three times per day, and refugees had to get it at a central location and carry it to their houses.

Thankfully, Thaw said, his family was given the opportunity by the U.S. government to migrate to America. The family came to Louisville nearly eight years ago.

The transition to life in the U.S. proved difficult. The family, which had known only a tropical climate, arrived here in December – and had lost some of its bags on the journey.

“It was extremely cold,” Thaw remembered.

He spoke no English when he arrived, and getting used to public transportation was tough.

Thaw remembered once waiting for almost two hours for a bus, in freezing weather, with limited clothing.

“One of the worst experiences I had,” he said.

But the weather and his disposition improved quickly. As he learned English, he made connections in the community. Language is a big barrier, Thaw said, and while he gets along well now, his parents still struggle, especially when filling out complicated government forms.


Election results trickled in for days last week, and while a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, the National League for Democracy will hold 387 of 664 seats, according to the Associated Press. The military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party will get just 42 seats – down from more than 360.

“It’s a historic election (that) suggests a dramatic reversal of fortunes,” Abbott said.

Before 2010, with Suu Kyi still under house arrest, not even the most optimistic observers would have predicted such a rapid move toward democratization, he said.

What prompted the shift of the military regime to make diplomatic overtures is unclear.

Abbott said possible reasons include economic sanctions by the U.S. and Europe, which increasingly targeted assets of individuals in the Burmese government. Also, Burma had relied heavily on support from China, but the nations have a difficult relationship historically, and perhaps Burmese reformers convinced hardliners to see if pro-Western overtures would help improve the economy, which they have.


How the military will react to the huge election loss remains to be seen, Abbott said, and will depend on how Suu Kyi plays her hand. While the military added language to the constitution that prevents her from being president, Suu Kyi has made statements about being “above the president.”

The potential for conflicts to continue is very real, Abbott said.

Refugee Eh Nay Thaw said he has been following politics in Burma since Suu Kyi was released in his sophomore year in high school.

This summer, he spent a month in Burma, including the capital Yangon, through a program that helps students learn English.

“I’m happy with the (election) result,” he said. “The country is sort of relaxing in a way.”

Nonetheless, he said, huge challenges remain. Many people do not have access to education, for example. The educational system and many other parts of the government continue to be run by the military.

Thaw said Burma is not a democracy yet, and that many minorities still are being oppressed. But, he said, life for the Burmese seems to be improving, and international pressure on the military make another coup unlikely.

“In a way, I am cautiously hopeful,” he said.

Thaw’s journey has elicited in him an interest in education, politics and how countries deal with one another: He is majoring in international relations.