Tea leaf entrepreneur stays true to his roots
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