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Driven from Their Homes

Interviews with Internally Displaced People of Shan State

by Antonio Graceffo

January 20, 2008

The Burmese government does not issue visas to journalists. In order to interview the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of Shan State , I had to enter the country under the protection of the Shan State Army, an armed ethnic group, rebelling against the Burmese Junta, the SPDC.

Three hundred and fifty IDP families are living on the Shan State Army (SSA) headquarters at Loi Tailang. Following are several interviews which will be featured in an upcoming documentary entitled, “A Life in Shan State .”

Gung Suk, 46 years old, is one of several men living in a hut for amputees with no families. Most of the men are missing a leg, victims of landmines. Many have other injuries, such as gunshot wounds. Gung Suk stepped on a mine while trying to escape the wholesale slaughter of their village, by the SPDC (government soldiers).

Gung Suk tells that the SPDC came and ordered his village of more than 100 families to move. This is a common tactic taken by the government. As the villagers are farmers, moving them mean separating them from their rice fields, essentially sentencing them to a slow death by starvation. They fired their guns, killing, men, women, and children indiscriminately. According to Gung Suk, some men tried to fight back, but they had no weapons.

“The situation was hopeless.” Gung Suk told us.

Gong Suk ran off in the night and joined the SSA. Most of the families sought refuge at SSA headquarters, Loi Tailang, or other SSA camps. Gong Suk was taken to Thailand for treatment of his landmine injury. It took days to get him to a hospital because, ducking the SPDC patrols, they could only move at night. Missing a leg, from the knee down, he was unable to provide for his wife and children.

“They went off to find food, and never came back.” He says, sadly. “I haven't herad anything from them. I don't know if they are alive or dead.”

After treatment, Gong Suk came to Loi Tailang. The SSA provides him with a food allotment so that he can live. He and the other amputees just sit around all day, playing checkers. They may be dreaming of happier times, but they never let on that their lives were destroyed by the SPDC.

An ancient woman, climbing up the steep mountain pass, carrying firewood on her back, took us to the home she shared with her middle-aged daughter, Tao Jaw and her grandchildren. She told us that they had lived in a village in Southern Shan State until March of last year, when the SPDC killed Tao Jaw's husband. She had no way to provide for her two children. They had no food, so she moved to Thailand to try and find some type of work.

The majority of Burmese, and nearly all of the tribal people are without a Burmese passport. The government strictly controls who may enter and who may leave the country. So, applying for a legal visa to move to Thailand or any other country is out of the question for the Shan people. In Thailand , without a Thai ID card she had no rights and little opportunity to earn money. The average salary for an illegal worker in northern Thailand is around 2,000 Baht ($55 USD) per month.

The Thai police eventually discovered that she had no documents and shipped her back to Burma . Luckily, they sent her back over the border, near Loi Tailang, rather than deporting her to Yangon, the capital where she may have been arrested.

Tao Jaw's father was the village leader. The SPDC murdered him.

“Most of the other men ran away from the village to avoid being taken as porters,” she said. “They took the rice and everything else that they wanted from the village.”

Tao Jaw's brother brought their mother to Loi Tailang. According to Tao Jaw, most of the attacks started in 1996. She saw a lot of torture and forced relocations beginning at that time.

“The SPDC moved the villages so that they could build a military camp in a strategic location, giving them better control of the area,” she explained.

Now, the SSA provide food for Tao Jaw, her children and her mother. The children attend the school for free. It is the first time they have ever had access to education.

“I feel safe at Loi Tailang,” said Tao Jaw.

The school at Loi Tailang has nearly 1,000 students, of which 250 are orphans.

A fourteen year old girl named Song Mun came to Loi Tailing because her parents and family were killed by the SPDC in 2003.

“The Burmese soldiers came in the village and killed many people. The survivors ran away.”

Now she lives in the orphan girls dormitory with 60 other young girls. Currently she is in sixth grade and her favorite subject is Shan language. Loi Tailang was the first place she ever had the opportunity to study Shan because in her village there was no school. According to many of the refugees, the SPDC prevented them from building schools in Shan villages. It is strictly prohibited to study the Shan language in Burma .

Song Mun didn't even know how to write Shan language when she came to Loi Tailing. Now she is very proud of the fact that she can read and write her native tongue.

For the internally displaced refugees of Shan State the SSA headquarters at Loi Tailing is an oasis, a safe haven where they can have some modicum of normalcy, raising their children in relative peace, and enjoying the expression of their own culture. Less than two years ago, however, the base came under attack from the combined forces of the SPDC and The Wa State Army. The Wa are another ethnic group, who are viewed as a proxy army, doing the bidding of the SPDC and killing other tribal groups.

The battle lasted 45 days. In the end, the SSA prevailed, and maintained control of Loi Tailang. But the attack leaves observers wondering what will happen next time? Will Song Mun be killed? Will Tao Jaw's aged mother be forced to make a desperate flight down the sheer mountain side, across the minefields, and across the border in Thailand , where she would risk being arrested and returned to Burma ? Will Gung Suk and the other amputees be summarily executed because they serve no purpose as porters?

For now, the people of Loi Tailang live in the moment, a moment of relative peace, and dream of a day when Shanland will become a reality.

Antonio is currently seeking donations to complete a non-commercial documentary film, entitled: “A Life in Shan State .” If you wish to help, please contact Antonio@speakingadventure.com

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Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia . He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running on youtube, click here: The Monk From Brooklyn - Kuntaw in the Phillipines Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website http://www.speakingadventure.com

Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa

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