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Put a Chinese-speaking Italian-American from Brooklyn in the holiest of Buddhist temples and watch the racial harmony flow.

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Plight of the Shan People of Burma

The war in Burma tears families apart, creates orphans, and leaves babies raising babies.

by Antonio Graceffo

December 6, 2008

“When I fled the village I had to leave my baby behind, because she was too small to survive in the jungle.” Says 25 year old Nang Ga, a Shan tribeswoman who was driven from her home in Shan State by SPDC soldiers of the Burmese army.

Rape, torture, murder, slavery, and forced relocation are among the many forms of suffering which the Burmese junta inflicts on Burma’s many ethnic minority peoples.

“The SPDC said we weren’t allowed to go into the rice fields anymore. How could we stay in the village if we couldn’t even grow food?” asks Nang Ga with tears in her eyes. The soldiers issued the village headman with a quota of porters, slaves, which he had to handover or he would be killed. “They told us if we ran away from the village they would shoot us.”

“Ordered starvation” is another tool employed by the government. Villagers are forbidden from growing rice, but threatened with death if they leave. They are essentially required to remain in place and die a slow wasting death.

The war in Burma has been going on for nearly sixty years, with the government waging a patient genocide against the tribal people.

When life became unbearable, Nang Ga fled to the jungle, taking the painful decision of leaving her small baby in the keeping of a neighbor. After some weeks of wandering aimlessly in the vast wild, she was found by a group of Shan State Army (SSA) rebel soldiers who took her to their headquarters at Loi Tailang.

Today, Nang Ga is one of roughly 3,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who have taken refuge at Loi Tailang. Set high upon a ridgeline, near the Thai border, the base is surrounded by minefields and guarded by several thousand rebel soldiers. Living in relative safety, the villagers seek to rebuild their shattered lives. They have built a school, a temple, several restaurants, and a meeting hall. Shan holidays are celebrated on the base, something that would have been impossible inside of Burma. The children are educated in their native tongue and taught to keep their cultural traditions. Unfortunately, nearly every family arrived incomplete. The anguish shows in their faces, and it is obvious that some loving member of their family is missing. 

When the SPDC raided her village, Nanga’s husband, 21 year old Non Geet, was away from home, serving in the Shan State Army. Luckily, they were reunited at Loi Tailang and are going through the motions of building a family together. He was not present at his baby’s birth.

“I have never seen our baby.” Says Non Geet, sadly. “She would be about four years old now.”

The villages don’t have telephones, and visiting the child would necessitate weeks of walking through hostile enemy territory. As a result, the young parents have no news of their child, whether she is alive or dead, or whether she is being well looked-after. Likewise, their daughter doesn’t know that she has parents who think about her every day.

Nang Ga is nine months pregnant. She dreams that someday her two children will share her bamboo hut. “This baby will go to school and live in safety.” Declares Nang Ga, motioning toward her stomach. “And she will never be hungry.”

“Life is better here than in our village.” Explains Nang Ga. “The SSA gives us food. In Shan State we had to pay for the school, but we were too poor. Here, school is free.”

Nearly six decades of war have created over two million refugees. Parents are often killed or separated from their children, leaving tens of thousands of children living as unaccompanied minors in refugee camps in Thailand or IDP camps in Burma. Many children, as young as twelve years old, eek out an existence as undocumented migrant workers in Thailand. Most of them work as servants, laborers or in the sex trade.

“The sound of a gun took my family away” wrote 20 year old Kawn Wan in his first poem after learning the English language. Kawn Wan came to Loi Tailing in 2001, and has now spent nearly half his life as an orphan and Internally Displaced Person (IDP).

“The SPDC soldiers came to our village and told us we had to move into the town.”

The SPDC relocates villagers in order to better control them. Those who resist relocation are often murdered and their homes burned.

When he was forced to leave his village Kawn Wan was so young he couldn’t carry his own gear.

“In the city it is hard for us to survive because we are countryside people. We don’t know how to get food in a city.” Explained Kawn Wan. “Some people escaped from the town. But when the SPDC found them they were arrested.”

Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the Shan State Army, heard about Kawn Wan and had his soldiers take him to Loi Tailang. Last year, Kawn Wan graduated high school, now he lives in the dormitory for orphan boys, giving them the care he never had. He also teaches English and Shan Kung Fu at the school.

“When I see the parents come to pick up their children sometimes I cry.” Says Kawn Wan who is powerfully built and covered in religious tattoos. “I know that my mother will never come for me.”

Most of the world remains ignorant of the war in Burma, and very few people in the west have even heard of the Shan, although they number over seven million in Shan State alone. Estimates suggest that there are an additional two million Shan living in northern Thailand.

In the assembly hall, two small boys hold each other tightly as they shy away from the camera. The foreign journalists look huge and offish as they scramble for better light and better position. The boys flinch when the camera flashes. Perhaps the bright light evokes images of a muzzle blast.

“They are orphans.” Explains Kawn Wan, who knows the details of every single child under his supervision. “They have been here for about four years.”

Switching to Shan language he asks the boys where they came from.

He shakes his head sadly at their reply. “They say they don’t remember anything, not even the name of their village.”

Kawn Wan is a young orphan raising the next generation of orphans. With no end to the war in site, one asks the question how many more families will be ripped apart?

“They come day by day.” Says Kawn Wan. “Some come alone and some come with a relative, an uncle or the headman from the village. Their family sometimes sends them here because education inside Shan State is so bad. The government doesn’t allow us to have a school. If they have a school then we only study Burmese language.”

Although the children spoke Shan at home with their parents, most didn’t learn to read and write their native tongue until they came to the school at Loi Tailang. The curriculum also includes Thai, Burmese, and English. Kawn Wan was lucky enough to be selected as one of only 34 young people to be sent to the Shan college in Thailand.

The Shan represent the largest ethnic group in Shan State, but refugees from all of the tribes are welcome at Loi Tailang. “The orphans here are not only Shan. We also have Lahu, Pa-O, and Palong.” Explained Kawn Wan. “A few couldn’t speak Shan when they came.”

The school bell rings and the children take up their bowls, as they do three times per day. They file out into the street and wait patiently in line for their basic issue of food. They are given a generous portion of rice topped off with watery vegetables. They only see meat about once per week.

At eighteen years of age, Hsai Leurn, another graduate of the Shan college, is the youngest teacher at the school. “The Lahu are mostly Christian.” He explained. “The Colonel always tells us we must treat all of the ethnicities equally, so in December I spent a lot of time on line, trying to learn how to make a Christmas celebration for them.”

Officially, the Shan and all of the other ethic groups are Burmese citizens, but almost none of them have a Burmese passport. Once they have had any contact with the rebel army it would be dangerous for them to apply for a passport. This is of course assuming they had the money to pay for a passport, which none of them do. As a result, the Shan are undocumented, stateless persons. It is technically illegal for them to enter Thailand. In order to attend college, Kawn Wan and his classmates had to be smuggled across the border. Once they arrived, they were locked inside of the school’s gated compound and not released until graduation day. Discovery by the Thai authorities would have meant arrest and deportation.

“When I lived in Shan State I didn’t know what is democracy, what is human rights, what other countries do. I didn’t know. I came here and I was sent to Shan college and I learned. Now I can use my skills to help other people.”

Kawn Wan remembers vividly when his parents were killed. He knows that he has living relatives inside of Shan State.

“From when I left until now I haven’t heard anything about them. They left the town to look for food, then people told me the SPDC caught them.”

Another of Kawn Wan’s classmates, Tun Yee is a young Shan soldier. “I am not sure if I am twenty or twenty one, because it was a long time ago.” He explains. “My father died when I was very young. When I was about ten, my mother was in the rice fields when the SPDC attacked.” Monks helped Tun Yee escape. “We walked through the jungle for about a month.”

Tun Yee became a monk and lived illegally in a Shan temple in Thailand until he was fifteen. He was then taken to Loi Tailang, where he left the monkhood and attended school for the first time in his life.

For ten years, Tun Yee didn’t know if his mother had survived. Recently, a newly arrived refugee told Tun Yee that a Shan woman, bearing the same name as his mother, and who also lost her son, was living in the city of Fang, in Thailand.

The soldiers had to restrain the impetuous youth, to prevent him from running across the border where he was sure to be arrested. Once again, the monks intervened. The head Abbot of the temple at Loi Tailang ordained Tun Yee as a ten-day monk. His head was shaved and he donned the sacred robes of a novice. Together, with the head Abbot, he made the long journey by car, first to Chiang Mai, and then on to Fang. Along the way, they were stopped numerous times by Thai military, but the Abbot talked them through all of the checkpoints, until they reached their destination.

“It wasn’t her.” Said a disappointed Tun Yee. Tears stream down his face. “I don’t even remember what she looks like.” He confessed. “When I close my eyes, I try to imagine her face, but I just don’t see it anymore.”

The orphans, the soldiers, and the refugees have formed a kind of makeshift family while war rages around them. In 2005 the base came under attack. For forty-five days the inhabitants were subjected to constant artillery barrages and frontal assaults by the SPDC and United Wa State Army. The Shan weathered the storm and emerged victorious. But the remnants of this battle are never far from their minds. The school, the dormitories, and even the temple are surrounded by air raid tunnels and defense trenches. Things are quiet for the moment, but for how long?

The young men sometimes talk about combat, but only in abstract terms of someday getting revenge on the SPDC. “They took our family, our education, our freedom and our rights.” Says Tun Yee making a list. All of the other boys nod their agreement.  

Their discussions never stray far from the politics of war. “We respect Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD).” Says Hsai Leurn. A budding artist, he has drawn portraits of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and has learned to sing the song, “Freedom from Fear.”

“But the NLD have never visited us in the jungle.” Says Kawn Wan, practically. “They cannot help us. They cannot even help themselves.”

“I like other countries. They have democracy.” Said Tun Yee. “I like Thailand. I can’t live there, because I don’t have an ID card, but our food and everything comes from Thailand.”

The Shan people are part of the Tai ethnic group, which includes the Lao and the Thai. The Shan feel themselves to be the historical cousins of the Thai. The soldiers were given the day off to celebrate the 80th birthday of the king of Thailand. In every Shan home, there is a Buddhist shrine depicting images of the current Thai King, His Majesty Rama IX and the ancient Thai King Naresuen, who helped the Shan king fight against the Burmese.

At the beginning of the Shan struggle the army was lead by General Khun Sa who funded his war through the sale of opium, eventually finding himself on the FBI’s most wanted list. Since Khun Sa’s death, Colonel Yawd Serk has lead the resistance, adopting a non-drug policy in the hopes of garnering international support. So far, that support hasn’t materialized, but the army and the civilians suffer under a complete lack of funds.

The King of Thailand is credited with providing most of the outside aid which the Shan receive. Unfortunately, to maintain good relations with Burma, Thailand cannot officially or openly endorse the Shan resistance.

Tun Yee went on to say, “We cannot live in our Shan State. In Shan State it is illegal to teach our language. And you would be arrested for talking about democracy.”

“Other countries have freedom.” Says Kawn Wan. “You foreigners, when you aren’t happy with something, you go and change it. You protest and fight, but here in Burma, it is impossible for us.”

The boys sum up their dreams in a simple sentence. “We want to go home and live with our families in peace.”

The interview ends at the home of the headmaster, where a new boy is being dropped off by his older brother. “Here he can get an education and I won’t have to be worried that he will be killed by the SPDC.” The brother explains.

The young teachers are busy with their new arrival. Just before they go, Kwan Wan begs, “I want the American people to know that we have a country, but we cannot live. We have no human rights. The government doesn’t do anything for us. We want the international community to tell the SPDC to give us democracy. We want to live freely like other countries. I think, because in America and democratic countries they have freedom and they have rights, they can use their rights to help us.”

“Please tell the world about us.”

Adventure and martial arts author, Antonio Graceffo has lived in Asia for more than  six years, publishing four books, available on amazon.com and several hundred articles in magazines and websites around the world. He has worked as a consultant and writer for shows on the History and Discovery Channel and appears on camera in “Digging for the Truth,” and “Human Weapon.” For the last several months, Antonio has been embedded with the Shan State rebel army in Burma. Antonio is host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search=Search

Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com

See Antonio’s website http://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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