The Community behind the Leader

Some among the 4,000-strong Burmese community living in Delhi tell their stories as Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the National League of Democracy of Myanmar, meets top Indian leaders and delivers the Nehru Memorial Lecture…

As the Chairperson of the National League of Democracy of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi met Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at his official residence in New Delhi on Wednesday, pro-democracy Burmese living in India through the years of her house arrest are excited to have her in the city.

Her week-long visit to India began by paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat and Jawaharlal Nehru at Shantivan. She delivered the Nehru Memorial Lecture on the occasion of his birth anniversary.
Meanwhile, her supporters like 62- year-old Mya Mya Aye who fled Burma in 1995 and have been living in Delhi ever since, hope to meet with their leader. The lives led by Mya Aye and others are as much a part of the struggle for democracy, with many of them having given up their homeland for it. Their story also needs to be told.

Once, Mya Aye was a home-maker not too concerned with politics. Married in 1970, she had focused on the job of bringing up her children. Her husband, Dr Tint Swe, a medical doctor who later became a politician, stood for parliamentary elections as a member of the NLD and won from the Paletownship in Monywa division in 1990. He then became the minister of information and public relations in the then National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.

A massacre in 1988, that followed a popular uprising led by students and which came to be known as the 88 Generation Uprising in Burma changed the lives of all the members of her family drastically. Recalls Mya Aye, “My two sons were among the 88 Generation protestors.” Before long, Mya Aye found herself being drawn into the movement and she joined the NLD party. With the military junta cracking down on the 88 Generation students and the NLD party, her husband and her eldest son fled the country in 1990. The family home and clinic were sealed leaving Mya Aye and her four other children on the run. “From 1992, we couldn’t even get a house on rent, because of the constant surveillance and harassment meted out to house owners who offered us accommodation,” she recalls. In 1995, she came to India and reunited with her husband. The couple has been living in Delhi ever since.

Today, they perceive the winds of change, as a slow democratic transition begins to unfold back home. Mya Aye is now able to be in touch with her relatives and friends through the Internet and Skype, and recently, she could meet up with her cousin sister–in-law Kyi Than at Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Kyi Than had a visa to visit Bodh Gaya, but not one for Delhi. It was an emotional reunion. “We cried a lot – out of happiness, of course. We had so much catching to do, about our lives, our children, ourselves!” exclaims Mya Aye.

Nothing symbolised the change in Burma more powerfully than the release, in 2010, of Aung Sang Suu Kyi who had to suffer house arrest almost continuously from 1989 for her opposition to the ruling military junta. This is why not just Mya Aye, but the 4,000-strong Burmese community living in Delhi, is so excited about greeting her on her first visit to India after her long incarceration.
According to a 2009 survey by Refugee International, there are approximately 50,000 – 1,00,000 displaced Burmese in India – most of whom are in the Northeast and Delhi.

Take Hmaengi Lushai, a Burmese refugee living in Delhi who has been associated with several Burmese women’s groups. Hmaengi underlines the importance of Suu Kyi’s visit for the Burmese refugee community in India by pointing to the fact that the leader had, in fact, during her meeting in Geneva in June this year, talked about the need to support and render help to refugees in India. The impact of her statement in making things easier for the community here was almost immediate, according to Hmaengi. But there is an element of anxiety that lingers. The community is very conscious of the delicate relations that exist between India and the ruling military establishment back home.

Life in India is a struggle for this community, given the daily uncertainties entailed in being refugees. There are also innumerable cultural and behavioural differences to contend with, and women especially have many stories to relate - of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment. Some like Mya Aye, who assists her husband at his clinic in Vikaspuri, west Delhi, which provides free service and treatment, have rebuilt new lives for themselves. Others still feel that they are living in a limbo.

But Mya Aye’s husband, Dr Swe counsels patience, “Much will depend on both our countries working towards a mutually beneficial climate of accountability and responsible investment.” He adds with a smile, “Things are still uncertain at present but remember there will soon be a connecting flight from Bodh Gaya to Mandalay. That’s a start!”

(Women’s Feature Service)
November 2012 

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