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Revolutionary Spirit

Burmese dissidents find safe haven in Fort Wayne



Win Moe was standing outside the sliding glass doors of the pale pink Holiday Inn in downtown Fort Wayne, puffing on a cigarette. His free hand was jammed deep in the pocket of his baggy brown jeans, his shoulders were hunched, and a knit cap was pulled low over his ears against the chill of February 2001. Black stubble indicated he hadn't shaved in days, the station wagon parked behind him suggested a degree of domestication. Only his black glasses hinted at a man who paid attention to style. Was this the look of a freedom fighter?

We climbed into the station wagon--his wife's, it turned out; he usually drives an old Jeep--and sped off into the Indiana night. Oversize pickup trucks seemed the only other vehicles on the streets. "It's a macho thing," Win Moe observed. "This is a conservative town."

Not that the trucks intimidated him--he's no shrinking violet. As a student, he helped lead a popular uprising against the military government of his native Burma, the southeast Asian nation officially known as Myanmar. Then he disappeared into the jungle, where he commanded two camps of students who'd turned guerrilla, firmly believing that one day they'd march victorious into the capital of Rangoon.

Fort Wayne has one of the largest concentrations of Burmese exiles in the world--more than a thousand people. Along with former student leaders from the "'88 generation" like Win Moe, there are two opposition members of parliament elected when the antigovernment movement swept Burma in 1990. That election was immediately annulled by the military junta; most opposition politicians were thrown in jail.

"This is the place in the U.S. where Burmese activism is most alive," says Chan Aye, a Voice of America reporter on Burma who used to live in Fort Wayne. "They are totally cut off from older, more established Burmese communities." One needn't look hard to spot young men missing legs, arms, and eyes--the price of their years of struggle in the jungle. These members of the '88 generation lead lives that are nothing like what they anticipated back in Burma, where they belonged to an educated, connected elite being groomed for promising careers. Most work factory jobs, and their years of sacrifice don't seem to count for much.

"They had high hopes for their movement, and the whole thing basically fell apart," says Zarni, cofounder of the Free Burma Coalition, which is based in Washington, D.C. "It's not just the jungle experience that defines them, it's the feeling of defeat. The U.S. wasn't their dream. It was to overthrow the government."

Like most of the exiles, Win Moe precisely remembers his arrival date in Fort Wayne: Friday the 13th of November, 1992. For anyone who believes in numerology, which most Burmese do, the date was not auspicious. To make matters worse, he was the 13th Burmese to arrive in the city. But aside from those numbers he seemed to have every advantage.

Now 37, he's tall for a Burmese, with a dazzling smile and penetrating brown eyes. His longtime friend Myat Soe says Win Moe was "always a famous guy" on campus back in Rangoon. The son of a soldier turned diplomat, Win Moe attended Catholic school in India for three years and was living in Egypt when his father's fatal illness brought the family back to Rangoon. The stints abroad gave Win Moe excellent English, a distinct advantage in a country where it was uncommon.

He also showed an aptitude for chess. At 16 he became the Burmese national champion; at 17 he beat a Russian grand master and the Burmese government took him under its wing. Under the auspices of the ministry of transportation (run by the military), he made a middle-class salary to coach military personnel in chess. "It was the socialist system," he says. "They grabbed you and put you in sports." Most of his chess pupils were more than a decade older than he was; one eventually became his stepfather.

Fewer than 3 percent of Burmese go to college, a tiny elite. Win Moe went to Rangoon University, where he was a star on the chess team and was among a handful of students chosen by the government to major in international relations. "My dream back then," he says, "was to play chess, travel, work for the foreign office, and get paid well."

But in the spring of 1988, his fourth year, university students in Rangoon began organizing the protests that would lead to the national democracy uprising. Win Moe says the twin burdens of political repression and economic hardship that had weighed on Burma since the military seized power in 1962 became unbearable. The sudden devaluation of the currency in 1987, which wiped out the savings of many families, was a key event that galvanized the students. A leader in the Rangoon University student union, Win Moe was at the heart of the uprising.

"By chance, we were the leaders on campus when those events occurred," he says. "Anyone else could have done it, and everyone wanted to do it. I'm lucky. I could be in jail." Several of his close friends and fellow organizers are still behind bars in Burma, along with more than a thousand other political prisoners.

Burma's democracy movement can be compared to China's Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, except far more protesters were killed on the streets of Rangoon--an estimated 3,000--and because of the country's isolationism there was little international reaction. Win Moe avoided capture when the army cracked down, sneaking home one night to pack and then fleeing the capital. "I saw my mom that night," he recalls. "I told her I'd be home in a month. Now it has been more than 13 years."

He says he and the thousands of other students who fled the army and trekked to the Thai-Burmese border had no idea what they were getting into: "We were young and arrogant, and frankly, we were used to living like kings." Their plan was to wage armed struggle in the jungle beside the thousands of ethnic minorities who'd been battling for decades against Burmese troops, but they were unprepared for the harsh terrain and hardened fighters they encountered. Hunger, malaria, and land mines became parts of everyday life.

Reemerging as a leader among the students, Win Moe stayed along the border from 1988 to 1991, initially taking up arms with the Karen, an ethnic minority that has been fighting Rangoon for five decades. Tensions flared between the Karen and student leaders over strategy and control, and some Burmese who knew him then say Win Moe's arrogance made matters worse. Several of his friends were killed by the Karen and he was threatened with death, so he moved to a region controlled by another ethnic faction, the Mon.

While he crusaded, Win Moe says, his family in Rangoon paid a heavy price. Whenever he made a radio broadcast from the camps, he learned later, his mother's home would be ransacked, and eventually she denounced him in a newspaper article. He assumes she was forced. Fearing that contact would only add to her troubles, he hasn't spoken to his mother since he left the country in 1988.

Win Moe left the jungle for Bangkok in 1991 to become head of foreign relations for the All Burma Students' Democratic Front. But the front was fracturing over long-simmering issues--such as whether to execute anyone deemed a traitor to the cause. Win Moe decided to get on with his life. He renounced his post in the front and applied for resettlement abroad.

Win Moe wound up in Fort Wayne because Neil and Diana Soward, Baptist missionaries who've have spent years in Burma, lived there and were sponsoring student leaders of the democracy movement. Fort Wayne's population of 200,000 is largely descended from German stock, with most of the labor force employed in manufacturing. "I was lost when I arrived here," Win Moe says. "All I wanted to do was go to school and play chess."

Almost none of his university credits transferred because he couldn't produce transcripts from home. He enrolled at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne, and also got a full-time job stuffing patio furniture at a local factory. Later jobs took him to a factory that made fiberglass skids ("The fiberglass made my nose bleed"), a foundry, and a Chinese restaurant. He lived in a run-down house full of young, single Burmese men from the democracy movement who were struggling to get by. "The house was so bad, we could hear the bugs in the walls at night," he recalls. "But we were like family to each other. We kept each other going."

In what little free time he had, Win Moe acted as a Burmese-English translator for the local office of Catholic Charities. He worked closely with the agency's director of refugee services, a woman named Bridget, and their relationship blossomed into romance. In 1994, he became the first Burmese in Fort Wayne to marry an American. They now have three sons, ages three to seven, and own a two-story home on a tree-lined street. Much of their social life revolves around Bridget's large family, and more than most Burmese in Fort Wayne, Win Moe has assimilated. When he phoned the other day, returning a message, he said he'd waited to call until halftime of the Pacers game.

When Win Moe's first son was born, the Burmese embassy in Washington sent a congratulatory card. He wasn't sure how the government had learned the news, but there have long been rumors of informants among Fort Wayne's Burmese. He believes the real message was "We're watching you." Last year he and some activist friends were visited by a man from Burma who told them the country needed skilled, educated people and said if they returned they'd have their pick of good jobs. No one seized the opportunity.

Win Moe eventually landed a skilled position at the local Eaton plant, which makes assembly clutches for heavy-duty trucks. He earned $22 an hour and was proud to be the only Asian working there. But in January of 2001 the plant cut back production and laid him off. His wife returned to work and he stayed home with the kids. He'd dropped out of college before he married, but now he's going full-time and hopes to earn an actuarial degree. "I love numbers," he says. He's also tutored a couple of children in chess.

Since losing his job, Win Moe has gone back to Burmese politics. He's again writing letters to editors denouncing the military government, and last summer he participated in a conference that members of Burma's '88 generation organized at Indiana University. After the conference Win Moe, his friend Myat Soe, former student front leader Moethee Zun (who last fall spent three months as a University of Chicago human rights fellow after 12 years in the jungle), and a handful of other activists decided to investigate their legal options. They formed an organization called Justice for Human Rights in Burma to coordinate their activities, many conducted from Win Moe's home.

This spring he and his wife's younger brother, Joe Serrani, visited Belgium, where foreign parties can be charged with crimes committed in other countries (four Rwandan officials have been convicted under Belgian law). On April 25 a lawsuit they were instrumental in drafting was filed in a Belgian court. It accuses leaders of the Burmese junta of crimes against humanity--including torture, repression, forced labor, and forced relocation.

This legal approach isn't something that all exiled Burmese agree with. Many fear it will slow reform. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi--who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991--has been engaged in secret talks with the junta since late 2000, talks mediated by the United Nations, and perhaps it was only a coincidence that a week after the suit was filed Suu Kyi was released from 19 months of house arrest. "A good sign," says Win Moe. But he, like many Burmese in Fort Wayne, doubts the government's sincerity.

Win Moe and his friends might have the most ambitious plan to take on Burma's junta, but a core group of about 100 Burmese activists in Fort Wayne has been organizing, writing letters, and demonstrating almost since they arrived in the United States. Their nights and weekends are filled with heated discussions--at each other's homes and on the Internet--about Burma's future. Maung Maung Soe, a former middle school teacher in Burma who left the country in 1988, is chairman of the Burmese Democratic Society, one of several activist groups in Fort Wayne. His organization supports American sanctions against Burma and conducts regular letter-writing campaigns. Despite his full-time job in a local factory, Maung Maung Soe says he often spends four hours a night on the Internet, communicating with Burmese activists around the world. He and his wife named their eldest son Victory.

"When you come from a culture where there's no freedom, and then you find it, it really explodes," says Fred Gilbert, a Fort Wayne social worker who has assisted many of the Burmese refugees. "These guys really use their freedom, and they appreciate it more than Americans do. They are freedom fighters, like our ancestors 200 years ago."

Most of the Burmese political activists in Fort Wayne are relatively well educated ethnic Burmans from the '88 generation who arrived in the early to mid-1990s. More recent arrivals have included ethnic minorities--such as the Karen and Mon--from remote parts of Burma who have spent less time in classrooms than the students but battled Burma's military government far longer. Differences within the community are evidenced by Fort Wayne's four Buddhist temples--two for ethnic Burmans, two for ethnic Mons.

Hti Mu, who was converted to the Baptist faith by missionaries and whose father was a prominent Karen leader in the 1940s, says she believes the ethnic Burmans are having a tougher time adapting to America. "For a Burman person to go from being an esteemed majority to an unknown minority is a big change," she says. "Deep down, they think they're superior people. They're trying to maintain their Burmeseness in a sea of Americans. But back in Burma, many Karens took Burman names to hide their true identities. The Karens find America more liberating, while the Burmans find it more oppressing."

But Hti Mu knows that to the rest of Fort Wayne they're all the same. "How can I say I'm Karen, when they don't even know where Burma is?"

Win Moe criticizes many of his fellow Burmese in Fort Wayne for failing to acquire political skills that might benefit Burma in the future. "All they say is they want democracy, but they don't know what kind of system they want," he says. "Many people still can't read English publications and can't discuss policy issues in any serious detail. They don't know much about the city of Fort Wayne, or even who the mayor is."

Each year since 1995, the State Department has selected a handful of Burmese students to participate in a program at Indiana University designed to educate them for future leadership positions in Burma. But Win Moe's friend Myat Soe faults Washington for not being more supportive of activists from the '88 generation. "If they really wanted us to become something, the U.S. government would have done more for us than take us from the jungle and drop us here," he says.

At a celebration of the Buddhist New Year in a Fort Wayne banquet hall in mid-April, a young Burmese man pulled off his baseball cap to reveal the scars on his head where a bullet had gone in one side and come out the other. His left arm hung limp at his side, one eye stared vacantly into space, and his hobbled gait required a cane. Across the hall, a man whose arms ended in stumps at his elbows made his way through the crowd. His hands and forearms had been blown off by a land mine.

For many other refugees, the scars are emotional. Many are "emotionally, psychologically damaged souls," says Zarni. They are socially isolated--most are single men, few have close American friends, and they pass much of their free time in each other's apartments.

"A lot of these guys are very depressed," says Nyein Chan, a Catholic Charities caseworker who arrived from Burma in 1994. "They can't follow American lives. Some of them have financial problems, and they start drinking." One Burmese man in Fort Wayne, a former student commander in the jungle who wears a beret at a jaunty angle, was ordered to attend nonviolence classes after his wife called the police on him several times. "Everything is difficult in the U.S.," he says. "Sometimes I am angry. My wife called the police. Now I know American law. It's ladies first. In my country, no ladies first."

The unwritten rules of life in America frustrate Myat Soe. "There's a glass ceiling here," he says. For the past eight years he's worked a production job at Nishikawa Standard, an auto-accessories manufacturer that's the largest employer of Burmese in Fort Wayne. He's risen to the rank of group leader, the most senior nonmanagement position at the plant. "I've learned manual labor," he told me. "Now I'm ready for something else." He graduated from Indiana-Purdue last year with a business degree. He'd like to go on and get an MBA. Though he doesn't expect his dream--working for the United Nations--to ever come true, he'd like to do something more challenging. The economic slowdown and major layoffs at other Fort Wayne companies have kept him where he is. "I don't want to start out again with no seniority."

Tom Hayhurst, a member of Fort Wayne's city council, says the local Burmese community is "focused, family-oriented, and hard-working." Noting the diverse waves of immigration into Fort Wayne in recent years, Hayhurst says the city now "looks like a mini United Nations." I ask him what distinguishes the Burmese from other immigrant groups. "When you talk to the Bosnians, they want to start a new life here," says Hayhurst. "The Burmese want to straighten things out over there and go home."

A group of Burmese celebrating the Buddhist New Year gather for a drink in the bar adjoining the banquet hall. Their talk soon turns to Burmese politics and the state of the '88 generation. "When we see our friends coming from Burma now, they look so much older than we do," observes one of the men. "We still look like we did in 1988. We are forever young." He vows to return if Burma ever becomes democratic, though by now he has two young children with an American girlfriend who converted to Buddhism. "I told her I plan to go back. That's the deal."

Win Moe is skeptical. An American citizen now, he sees his future in this country. "Most people say they want to go back, but I wonder how many really will go," he says. "They can make $30,000 or $40,000 a year here, versus about $400 max in Burma. It's not realistic to think they're all going to go back to important jobs. But I suppose the Burmese social culture here pressures you to say you're going back. Many people probably haven't looked that deep inside themselves.

"A lot of them are stuck in the past," he says. "They can't get beyond 1988."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner, Munesuke Yamamoto.

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