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Frank Gray

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Ethnic violence shows why Suu Kyi calls for unity

The visit of Aung San Suu Kyi to Fort Wayne last month, I have to admit, was somewhat enlightening to me.

Oh, I’ve heard of Burma. George Orwell was a minor official there in the 1930s when it was a British colony. He wrote a book about it, and he wrote an essay on how to, or not to, kill an elephant.

Since Burmese have started coming to Fort Wayne over the last couple of decades, I learned that different groups speak different dialects.

The day of Suu Kyi’s visit, though, offered a visual lesson on the diversity of Burma. Different groups wore different styles of dress, not radically different but distinctive.

I got my first geography lesson on Burma that day when a young lady who had come to the U.S. as a child explained that there were eight different states and each had a different language.

Talk of friction between the different groups, though, was a topic that, when brought up, was deftly avoided.

Suu Kyi, in her address to the Burmese, didn’t shy away from it, however. In outlining her dreams of democracy in Burma, she acknowledged that there are conflicts between different groups, “but we can all reconcile and overcome any conflict,” she said.

She called for a united Burma.

Suu Kyi asked everyone to learn Burmese, long the official national language of Burma, but encouraged people to keep their native languages.

To an American, though, it is difficult to understand the true nature of Burma and the different ethnic and religious groups there.

One comes to realize, though, how important Suu Kyi is to the Burmese people. In a country that has spent nearly a quarter of a century under the thumb of a military junta, where people who talked about freedoms risked prison, she is a voice of hope.

As the Burmese filed out of the Coliseum that day, one sensed there was, among some people at least, a sense of excitement, but one I didn’t quite understand.

Then, in the inside pages of the newspaper last week, was a story that helped me put it all in perspective.

Violence had broken out in Burma between the Rakhine and Rohingya communities, two groups I had never heard of.

In the violence, more than 100 people had been killed, dozens injured, and thousands of homes destroyed, and it was the second major outbreak between the two groups since early summer.

Suddenly, Suu Kyi’s comments from last month about jealousy and discord and bad feelings take on a deeper meaning, and the multiple challenges she and the Burmese people face become more apparent.

The conflict between different groups shouldn’t surprise anyone. Even Suu Kyi herself said that was a human trait.

But the magnitude of the conflicts is surprising.

In her speech, Suu Kyi said she would be grateful to any Burmese who had fled the country if they would be willing to return to Burma. Perhaps those who do someday choose to return could serve as disciples of sorts for Suu Kyi’s philosophy.

Although the news out of Burma last week was bad, it helps one understand the nature of the battle she has been fighting for years.

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 fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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