WASHINGTON – Burmese soldiers set fire to Nay Htoo's village when he was 10, sending him fleeing into the mountains on the first leg of a 36-year journey that took him from Burma to Buffalo — and, Monday, to a place he never could have imagined:
The U.S. Capitol.
Nay Htoo, who told the details of his family's harrowing journey in a series last year in The Buffalo News, "From Burma to Buffalo," traveled to the Capitol with about 90 other ethnic Karen refugees from Buffalo and nearly 5,000 others from around the country.
They came to protest the Burmese army's continued persecution of the nation's ethnic minorities.
In the process, Nay Htoo and thousands of others exercised cornerstone American freedoms – freedom of speech and the freedom to peaceably assemble – on behalf of others, half a world away, who still know no such thing.
"I need freedom for my country, for my people," said Nay Htoo, one of dozens of refugees who unfurled a giant Karen flag on the west side of the Capitol as part of the protest.
Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi became Burma's de facto leader in a 2015 election, but Mu Kpaw, who chairs the Karen Organization of the United States, said the Burmese Army continues to persecute the nation's ethnic minorities.
“We are calling for the United States government to reinstate economic and targeted individual sanctions as the Burmese Military regularly violates the terms of the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement and systematically targets ethnic minorities through violent and less violent means to strip the ethnic minorities of their fundamental human rights," Mu Kpaw said.
Rohingya Muslims in western Burma have suffered the most recently, with Army attacks driving 600,000 — more than half the Rohingya population — west to Bangladesh.
Members of the Karen ethnic minority — who make up the largest group of refugees from Burma in the United States — said they wanted to show support for the Rohingya, who, according to the UN, are victims of ethnic cleansing.
"The Rohingya are human beings, the same as us," said Smiler Greely, a Karen refugee in Buffalo who told his story in the 2010 documentary "Nickel City Smiler." "They have to have the same rights as us."
Other Karen refugees stressed the suffering of their own people, who waged a decades-long civil war against the Burmese government that sporadically erupts in violence.
"I am here because I want my country to be free and my people to be free," said Thaw Yee, a Karen refugee who lives in Buffalo and who recalls a brutal interrogation she underwent years ago at the hands of Burmese troops.
At 17, Say Lah is too young to have witnessed any atrocities, but the McKinley High School student has heard all about how Burmese troops killed his grandmother.
Hearing about the Burmese Army's recent actions sounded familiar to Say Lah.
"They are still terrorizing people, committing rape, committing murder," said Say Lah, who said those actions motivated him to travel to Washington.