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Burmese Sister City in future for Fort Wayne?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 - 7:37 am

In the not-so-distant future, Fort Wayne could have a new Sister City in Burma.

Tom Herr, president of Fort Wayne Sister Cities International, and Minn Myint Nan Tin, executive director of the Burmese Advocacy Center, began talking about the possibility shortly after Burmese democracy leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Fort Wayne in September.

Since 1976 Fort Wayne Sister Cities International, an affiliate of the nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., has worked to promote international understanding between the residents of Fort Wayne and those of its sister cities in Takaoka, Japan; Plock, Poland; Gera, Germany and Taizhou, China.

So far Minn Myint Nan Tin has put together a committee of 10 ethnic, political and religious leaders from the local Burmese community to work on the effort.

Herr and his family recently spent several weeks in Burma on a tour of five areas. Herr said after the visit he thought Mandalay might be a good choice, but right now it is too early in the process to know. Minn Myint Nan Tin said Monday that she imagines they may not have a lot of choice in what city they partner with. She believes when it gets to that stage in the conversation the government, which renamed the country Myanmar, would be the one making the choice.

Both Herr and Minn Myint Nan Tin said Mayor Tom Henry is excited about the possibility, and Herr conducted a conversation with the US State Department before he went to Burma.

“Heather Rogers, who works at the Burma desk, described our search for a sister city as a 'terrific initiative' and is 'perfect' for what the U.S. government hopes to accomplish through increased exchanges in Burma over the next few years,” Herr said in a recent email.

Herr said Rogers went on to say that all reform in Burma must come from the top but that the Burmese in the U.S. and Burma and the folks at the State Department are all optimistic about the 2015 elections as well as the reforms that began late last year after Hillary Rodham Clinton's and President Obama's visits. Heather told Herr that she believes that once the elections take place - a parliamentary government took power in March 2011from the ruling junta - they will see a reverse brain drain with educated Burmese returning to Burma from the U.S.

In 2014 Burma will be the chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and will be conducting 1,000 meetings. Minn Myint Nan Tin said after the elections in 2015 they will know just who they will be working with in the government to accomplish the Sister City Initiative.

Herr and his wife, Claire Ewart, daughter Celeste Herr, and friend Maggie Dragan, recently went on an 11-day guided tour of Burma. Both Herr and Ewart were impressed by the warmth and friendliness of the people. Ewart said everywhere they went they were met by smiling people. They had three nights in three cities, and then two more nights in Yangon where they saw the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is the largest Buddhist temple there.

“Nobody objected to having their picture taken,” Ewart said.

In other countries they have traveled in, like India, people frequently did not want their picture taken.

Ewart said the people they met went out of their way to please them. She recalled a morning when she asked for Indian tea, which was not on the menu at their hotel. The waiter asked her to describe how to make it. The preparation involved grinding several different spices together. He disappeared and shortly after that she could hear banging sounds from the kitchen and not too long after that he brought her a cup of Indian tea.

Ewart and Herr said they saw only a few indications of the unrest in the country, although they both admitted they were only taken into areas where there was very little. Their guide spoke freely about politics and the future.

“He often asked for questions, but even our guide had some trouble with the (Islamic) religion, which was disappointing,” Herr said.

Herr said they heard gunfire one night at Inlay Lake. Ewart recalled the most disturbing thing she saw was at Inlay Lake when they were traveling by boat. Both she and her daughter saw what looked like a human skull on a log by the edge of the water. She asked the guide about it, but he said the unrest was farther north.

They noticed a lot of building going on, but most of it was manual labor. Herr said now is the time to visit. He and Ewart said a year from now with the new openness of the country things will change. Before they arrived the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had been there along with Bank of America MasterCard, Ford, and a major soft drink manufacturer were there.

“We can see it coming,” Herr said, adding, “One-third of the population is poor, health care is nonexistent, education is not the best. Those improvements are coming but with those changes how will that change their outlook on life? How will it change the mood and spirit of the people? We worry about that.” Herr said.

Already tourists are pouring into the country and hotel rooms are hard to come by. But for now there is still an innocence and unspoiled charm that they have never encountered in all the world traveling that they have done.