Burmese refugees protest at Capitol for change at home

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2007 - 7:39 PM

Demonstrators want to make known and gain support for their fight for democracy in Myanmar.

Decades ago, Robert Zan's father, Mahn Ba Zan, was one of the leaders of a rebellion against a repressive military government in Burma, now called Myanmar.

On Saturday afternoon, the son stood near the steps of the State Capitol in St. Paul along with about 200 protesters who waved flags and chanted to demand change in a country that saw a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

"It is very, very bad, but this is the nature of political dictators," said Zan, who wore a colorful traditional smock over his Western clothes. "They have no mercy -- they hate the people. They are so afraid to lose power."

Roughly 1,000 refugees from Myanmar live in Minnesota, most in the St. Paul area. Many of them came here in the 1990s and remember an unsuccessful 1988 uprising in which an estimated 3,000 people died. Now, they have been watching hopefully from afar as protests that began in August as an expression of anger over soaring fuel prices were joined by Buddhist monks and grew into pro-democracy demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people.

Benjamin Aung was in the midst of the 1988 uprising. He was a police officer then. Now he is a U.S. citizen and works as an interpreter.

"I always knew it would happen again one day," he said. He said he had not heard from his three brothers in Myanmar since the demonstrations began.

Internet service and other communications have been cut by the government, and by Saturday reports indicated that large protests had ended, police had taken control of monasteries and the streets were largely empty.

Aung was still clinging to hope that things eventually will change.

"If the monks and the police took a stand and some part of the military joined the people, it will change," he said.

Some of the Minnesota demonstrators wore traditional costumes or headdresses. Children held framed photographs of pro-democracy figures like Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has been held under house arrest in Myanmar for most of the past 18 years. On signs and in chants, they called the country they fled Burma, refusing to use the new name chosen by the military in 1989.

A large American flag waved in the wind along with flags representing independence movements within Myanmar, including those for the ethnic minorities Karen, Mon and Pa-O. All of those ethnicities are represented in Minnesota, though the Karen are by far the biggest group.

Wilfred Tun Baw, one of the organizers of the rally, said he hoped that demonstrations like this would make Americans aware of what's going on in Myanmar. With public interest and information spread by media and the Internet, he said, pressure on countries like China that support the Myanmar regime could eventually lead to change.

"All people from Burma, we want democracy," he said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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