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From Burma to Buffalo New U.S. citizen was political prisoner

Myo Thant's journey has brought him from Burma to Buffalo. On Thursday, the former political prisoner who was an aide to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi became a U.S. citizen in a downtown courtroom.

"I'm kind of sad," admitted the slight, 35-year-old man minutes after being sworn in as one of the country's newest citizens. "I feel this is selfish. I cannot be happy because my people are still fighting for freedom."

But Thant also realizes that as an American, he can work to increase awareness about Burma, now called Myanmar, and to someday help bring democracy to his homeland.

Thant has been living in exile since 1997 after spending 18 months under house arrest with Suu Kyi, a beloved pro-democracy activist who has been imprisoned in her home for the better part of the last 16 years.

Thant had taken part in a massive student uprising against the one-party government.

"It was like a dictatorship," Thant said. "The economy was collapsing. People were so frustrated."

In 1988, as anti-government demonstrations swept the country, the military grew desperate to stop the opposition and began firing on protesters.

"The students were killed by the military," Thant said.

It was during these turbulent times that Suu Kyi -- whose father, a commander in Burma's pro-independence army, was assassinated when she was just 2 -- became an outspoken leader in the pro-democracy movement, urging peaceful resistance.

As her popularity grew, a military coup overthrew the foundering government and imposed martial law. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989 but remained a powerful figure.

In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her fierce devotion to nonviolent change.

When she was temporarily released from house arrest in 1995, she summoned Thant, then a student leader in Rangoon, to work with her.

But as he visited Suu Kyi, she was placed under house arrest again, and Thant was forced to stay as well. "Overnight, I became a political prisoner," he said.

Thant's home was ransacked. His father and brothers were detained as the military tried to find evidence that Thant was an insurgent. The military told Thant's family that if he ever returned home, they were to report him to the authorities, or face arrest themselves.

Thant realized that he needed to do something. "This was my choice: you want to go to jail or you want to leave the country."

He ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he would stay for the two years. While in Thailand, he said, the Myanmar military released false reports to the local media that Thant was a dangerous terrorist bent on violent insurrection. It was an effort to discredit Suu Kyi.

At the refugee camp, Thant was interviewed repeatedly by United Nations workers and eventually was cleared for asylum status.

In October 1999, Thant traveled for 23 hours, from Thailand, to Los Angeles, then Detroit and finally, to his new home, Buffalo.

Because he had no family in the United States, Thant was randomly selected to be settled in Buffalo with the help of the city's Journey's End Refugee Services program.

Journey's End helped Thant find his first job, at the meat counter at the Super Saver Market on the East Side.

After his first day, he approached the Journey's End employment supervisor, Debbie Bowers.

"He said, 'I can't take this job. I have to go to school,' " Bowers said.

The Burmese activists wanted "to get him here so he could be educated and help with the cause of democracy," Bowers said.

So she helped Thant enroll at Erie Community College while he continued his supermarket job.

Now, he is finishing his last semester with Buffalo State College and hopes to pursue a master's degree in political science at the University at Buffalo.

At Thursday's citizenship ceremony, Thant was dressed like a true American college student with blue jeans and a black sweat shirt.

He raised his right hand, along with 57 other new citizens, and pledged his allegiance to the United States.

"He's pretty excited," said Mitch Cummings, citizenship coordinator with Journey's End. "He's pretty diminutive, but he's got the heart of a tiger."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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