Myanmar(Burma)'s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated a call Tuesday for the lifting of sanctions against her impoverished country, and vowed to use her new parliamentary role to foment more change.
Thousands of elated supporters greeted Suu Kyi with cheers, tears and a standing ovation as she took to the stage at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind., the fourth stop on her 17-day U.S. tour.
Sixty-seven-year-old Suu Kyi, who was recently elected to parliament after spending 15 years under house arrest for opposing Myanmar(Burma)'s military rulers, voiced optimism for democracy in her Southeast Asian home.
"The important thing is to learn how to resolve problems. How to face them and how to find the right answers through discussion and debate," the Nobel Laureate told the more than 5,000 people who gathered to hear her speak. Fort Wayne is home to one of the largest Burmese communities in the United States.
Myanmar(Burma)'s half century of military rule made the country something of a pariah in the international community, inviting crippling sanctions. But President Thein Sein has introduced political and economic reforms in recent years and the U.S. administration is considering easing the main plank of its remaining sanctions, a ban on imports.
Suu Kyi said the sanctions were effective in pushing the junta to reform, but that "they should now be lifted" so that Myanmar(Burma) can rebuild its economy.
"We cannot only depend on external support and support of our friends from other nations. We should also depend on ourselves to reach this goal," she said.
Suu Kyi has already stopped in New York, Louisville, Ky., and Washington, D.C., where she met with President Barack Obama and received the Congressional Gold Medal. Thein Sein separately is visiting New York this week to attend the U.N. General Assembly, making him the first Myanmar(Burma) leader to visit the US in more than 40 years.
Hundreds of supporters lined up outside the arena hours before Suu Kyi was due to speak. As the doors opened at 7:30 a.m., supporters flooded inside to claim the best seats.
"People had so much going on in their minds: joy, happiness, everything. They just came together as a joy. Everybody was tearing up," said May Ayaroo, a 27-year-old engineer at defense company BAE Systems in Fort Wayne.
Factory worker Kaung Shein, 42, said he had been among the approximately 1 million students who took part in a failed pro-democracy uprising to protest Burma's military-backed regime in August 1988. Oxford-educated Suu Kyi rose to prominence during that period.
"We are from the 88 Generation," Kaung Shein said. "We align with her. ... We are very excited to be here. We've been waiting for 20 years."
Thousands of the 1988 protesters were killed and tens of thousands more — including Suu Kyi — spent years as political prisoners. Her National League for Democracy party was subsequently stymied by the junta's iron grip on the country. But Suu Kyi voiced cautious hope.
"The differences and problems we have amongst ourselves, I think we can join hands and reconcile and move forward and solve any problems," she said. Suu Kyi delivered most of her speech — and answered most questions — in Burmese, with an English translation by video.
Since 1991, when a single Burmese refugee resettled in Fort Wayne — about two hours north of Indianapolis and 8,000 miles from Myanmar(Burma) — thousands more have followed, many of them relocating under a federal program after years in refugee camps in Thailand.
For some of Fort Wayne's Burmese residents, Suu Kyi's visit is the first tangible connection with the homeland they hope to return to one day.
I will try my best for anyone who wishes to return to Burma to be able to come back and we should all work together to achieve this goal," Suu Kyi said.
Thiya Ba Kyi, a former dentist who earned an MBA after coming to the U.S. in 1994 and now works for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, wants to be a part of the change Suu Kyi is expected to bring.
"I would like to move back," he said. "Hopefully, they'll need educated people who have experience in a democratic country."
Many Burmese refugees left behind careers and have had to learn new skills while others rely on food stamps to survive.
U Tun Oo was elected to parliament in the 1990 election won by Suu Kyi's party that was nullified by the military regime and served as finance minister for the elected government in exile. Now Tun Oo, who was a construction engineer in Asia, works in a Fort Wayne factory. When he's not working, he heads the local branch of Suu Kyi's party.
"She is the hope for the people," said Ba Kyi, who helps the Burmese opposition in exile. "She can bring democracy again in Burma."
But in her Tuesday speech, Suu Kyi warned her supporters — this time in English — that she is not infallible.
"A popular leader is not the same as a good leader," Suu Kyi said. "I hope you keep that in mind."