One of the world's best known democracy activists, Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, will come to the Bay Area next month during her first visit to the United States in decades.
The Sept. 29 visit by the 67-year-old democracy leader is expected to attract thousands of people, many of them Burmese exiles who consider the former political prisoner a hero for her long refusal to bend to an oppressive military regime.
"She's encouraging, acknowledging, supporting us," said Nyunt Than, an Albany resident who chairs the Burmese American Democratic Alliance. "This is her way to show her appreciation for what the community has done for her."
Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years under house arrest before she was freed in 2010 and in April won election to the Myanmar Parliament. Her election has symbolized Myanmar's shift from military rule to more democratic governance, but Than said "she will need much more support to make democratic reform in Myanmar a reality."
Myanmar's military rulers changed the country's name from Burma in 1989 but many exiles still use the old name.
The Bay Area has the nation's largest Burmese population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, which counted more than 8,500 residents who describe themselves as Burmese. Some came as economic migrants decades ago, others fled as student dissidents in the 1980s and 1990s or are refugees escaping more recent turmoil.
"I said 'please come to America, and please come to the Bay Area. She said, not now, but maybe sometime in the future,'" Vanya said.
Turns out sometime is happening sooner than the Santa Clara resident expected.
Suu Kyi had not left her country for 24 years until this spring, when she met with refugees in neighboring Thailand and attended an economic summit in Europe.
The U.S. State Department is sponsoring Suu Kyi's travel to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19 to pick up the Congressional Gold Medal lawmakers awarded her in 2008 while she was still under house arrest.
Than said Suu Kyi might also visit other Burmese hubs including Fort Wayne, Ind., Los Angeles and New York City, where she lived in her 20s while working for the United Nations.
Her local hosts expect to set a place where Suu Kyi can give a talk.
Suu Kyi knows of the support she has had in the activist region, said Vanya, secretary of the Burmese American Women's Alliance. Area activists organized 1990s Berkeley and San Francisco boycott movements against the Myanmar regime and a Palo Alto birthday celebration held in her honor in June.