Tea leaf en­tre­pre­neur stays true to his roots

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Por­tia Lar­lee


After a life jour­ney in­volv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences shared by thou­sands of his com­pa­tri­ots, in­clud­ing ac­tivism, re­sis­tance, vi­o­lence, hard­ship and ex­ile, Sai Lu Kyaw is re­build­ing a bond with his moth­er­land.

Dur­ing the na­tional up­ris­ing in 1988, the young ac­tivist hurled Molo­tov cock­tails from the roof of a Yan­gon cin­ema to sol­diers on the street be­low.

In 2012, Sai Lu Kyaw, with his wife and two chil­dren, re­turned to his home­land for the first time in more than 20 years and es­tab­lished a tea plan­ta­tion and a food ex­port business.

His story in those in­ter­ven­ing years is sim­i­lar to many of those who sought refuge in ex­ile after the up­ris­ing was crushed, in­clud­ing an im­mi­grant’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed.

“When we were in our twen­ties we were not afraid,” Sai Lu Kyaw, 51, told Mizzima in a re­cent in­ter­view at his restau­rant in Bos­ton, a short drive from Har­vard Univer­sity.

“But now it’s dif­fer­ent; now we have changed our mind,” he said. “Now we are in our 50s and we don’t want vi­o­lence, just peace; we need to re­pair our coun­try.”

Sai Lu Kyaw, who was raised on a tea plan­ta­tion in north­ern Shan State, be­came in­volved in pol­i­tics in 1987 after the rul­ing Burma So­cial­ist Pro­gramme Party de­mon­e­tised most kyat notes, ren­der­ing many fam­i­lies’ sav­ings worth­less. He was in his third year at Ran­goon Univer­sity and was no longer able to pay his tu­ition.

After the up­ris­ing was crushed when the mil­i­tary seized power in Septem­ber 1988, Sai Lu Kyaw spent months in hid­ing be­fore flee­ing to Thai­land. He joined the Demo­cratic Al­liance of Burma and re­ceived jun­gle war­fare train­ing from Amer­i­can vet­er­ans of the In­dochina War.

Life in the jun­gle was harsh and in 1993 Sai Lu Kyaw was re­set­tled in the United States with the as­sis­tance of the United Na­tions refugee agency, the UNHCR.

After ten years in Fort Wayne, In­di­ana – home to the big­gest Burmese com­mu­nity in the US – and a stint in Kansas City, Mis­souri, Sai Lu Kyaw set­tled in Bos­ton, where he opened the Yoma Myan­mar restau­rant in 2007. Bos­ton of­fered bet­ter ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for his young daugh­ter and he en­joyed its vi­brant po­lit­i­cal life.

Myan­mar was al­ways present in his mind, es­pe­cially at times of cri­sis.

Dur­ing the demon­stra­tions led by monks in 2007 known as the Saf­fron Revo­lu­tion, Sai Lu Kyaw went on a hunger strike out­side the Mas­sachusetts State House in Bos­ton to show sol­i­dar­ity with the pro­test­ers. After the death and dev­as­ta­tion caused by Cy­clone Nar­gis in 2008, he held a buf­fet to raise funds for sur­vivors. It raised more than US$8,000 in one morn­ing.

Dur­ing his visit to Myan­mar in 2012 with his fam­ily, Sai Lu Kyaw es­tab­lished a tea plan­ta­tion in Shan State’s Namshan Town­ship and a pack­ag­ing fac­tory in Yan­gon to support a small ex­port business. The Yoma Myan­mar Tea Company ex­ports pick­led tea leaves and other Myan­mar del­i­ca­cies to about 40 stores through­out the US.

“The gov­ern­ment, they are al­ways sell­ing nat­u­ral re­sources; they don’t know how to share cul­ture,” Sai Lu Kyaw said. “The tea is our cul­ture; peo­ple only drink tea but we sell it and I like to pro­mote that.”

De­spite hav­ing Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship and rel­a­tive eco­nomic se­cu­rity in Bos­ton, Sai Lu Kyaw plans to re­turn to Myan­mar.

“I am grate­ful to be here in the US,” he said, but added there was much he still wanted to do in Myan­mar.

“A lot of my friends died in prison, in the jun­gle, when protest­ing, so we owe them; un­til we die, we will fight for a demo­cratic so­ci­ety.”

Sai Lu Kyaw at his Bos­ton restau­rant. Photo: Ann Wang

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