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Frank Gray

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Each outfit identified its wearer as a member of a different ethnic group within the nation now known as Myanmar, but Burma was the name used Tuesday.

Diverse crowd hears message

Professor Mike Rowley canceled his class in argumentation and persuasion at Huntington University on Tuesday so his students could witness a Nobel Prize winner in action.

“Many of my students recognized the significance” of the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi in Fort Wayne, he said. “They wanted to hear her and support the Burmese population.”

The students in Rowley’s class planned to discuss what makes Suu Kyi so appealing during Thursday’s class.

Meanwhile, Tom Datema, a pastor from Zanesville, wanted his daughter to see a role model who had stood up to a military junta in Burma. Datema, whose father was a director of missions for a church, saw his family chased out of countries in Africa, so he knows what Suu Kyi has been up against.

“You don’t get people like this coming through Fort Wayne very often,” he said.

Both were joined inside Memorial Coliseum by thousands of Burmese, wearing various traditional wardrobes, sarongs of specific colors, striped tops, silk dresses with matching jackets and scarves.

Each outfit identified its wearer as a member of a different ethnic group within the country, now known as Myanmar.

They came to see a national hero, a woman who had spent years under house arrest before being elected to parliament in Myanmar as part of a fledgling democracy movement. While Americans in the crowd clapped and cheered as she arrived, the Burmese instead chanted, “Good health Suu Kyi.”

In the end, some of the Burmese crowd didn’t really grasp her message. A group of young men exiting Memorial Coliseum, one of them wearing a shirt with Suu Kyi’s picture, said they couldn’t understand her talk. The young men spoke a dialect of Burmese different than that spoken by Suu Kyi, and it was difficult to read the English translation on the large video screens.

Myanmar is made up of eight states, and multiple different languages are spoken across the country, so in the crowd were doubtlessly plenty of Burmese who didn’t speak the official Burmese language or English and therefore couldn’t read the subtitles.

Somehow you know, though, that in their hearts and minds, the old women in the white dresses and young men in striped togas and the men in the headdresses and those in orange tops left feeling good that they had seen a national hero.

In her talk and in answers to questions, she gave a hint of the nature of life in the long-oppressed Myanmar. It is a nation of many different cultures and languages, and she repeatedly said that differences need to be overcome while still respecting those cultures.

The Burmese, she said, have a lack of confidence in themselves. They have a lack of belief in themselves. They should not compare their children but should encourage them to believe in themselves.

Democracy, Suu Kyi said, will not come in an instant.

She’s only been off house arrest for a short time and a member of parliament for seven months. The country has taken just a few steps down the path to democracy.

The Burmese in America, though, have had a taste of democracy unlike anything they have seen in their homeland.

“I don’t demand that you return,” she told the crowd, “but you should be able to, and I will work with authorities to let you.”

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter (@FrankGrayJG).