He explained that the Shan community office has no real power. “We also cannot do anything. The Malaysian government says the UNHCR card is not a legal document to remain in Malaysia. They say passports only. If we have the card, they will check to make sure it is a real one because there are a lot of fake ones around.
“Unfortunately, our members think we have more power than we have. If they get arrested, or have a car accident or pregnancy, they come to us for help. But actually, we can do nothing. We are also dependent on UNHCR.
“Last month, we had ten people arrested. Some we could bail out, some we couldn’t. Every month, it depends on the raid operations. Most of the Shan don’t have a passport. Very few come as students, with passport. But very few.”
I asked why they didn’t just go to Thailand.
“In Thailand, it is easier to hide because Shan look like Thai and speak like Thai. But in Malaysia, Shan can get recognized by the UNHCR,” one refugee explained.
Victims of genocide can often become official refugees, registered with UNHCR, and possibly be resettled in a third country. To prove an allegation of genocide, the victims must all be of a recognized ethnic group. The most well-known example, of course, was Hitler’s genocide against the Jews in the Second World War. The Jews are a well-defined group, and it was clear that Hitler was trying to exterminate them. For some of Burma’s other ethnics, such as Chin and Padaung (The Long Neck Karen), getting recognized as a distinct ethnic group was no problem.
It is a well-known fact to cross-border aid workers and refugees alike, that the UNHCR, at least in Thailand, does not recognize the Shan as a distinct ethnic group. The Shan are one of several Tai peoples, who migrated down from Sipsong Panna, China, millennia ago. Other members of the Tai race include the Thais and the Lao. One of the greatest hurdles for people working on Shan aid projects is getting UNHCR to recognize that the Shan are a distinct group of people, with their own religion, language, and culture, which, although related to Thai, is not Thai.
This is one of the main reasons why four times as many Chin refugees are resettled from Malaysia than Shan.
Where it is difficult for the Shan to be recognized by UNHCR in Malaysia, it is nearly impossible in Thailand. So, coming to Malaysia, while more risky from a security standpoint, was a more attractive choice to people who would rather face any hardship than be returned to Burma.
One of the Shan men told me had done basically all that he could, and now his case was in the hands of God. He had been in Malaysia since 2009 and managed to register with the UNHCR. At this point, he and his wife and child could only stand, feebly by, awaiting resettlement.
“I don’t know if I will get resettled. I hope so,” he said. “But it depends on UNHCR. No one can say what they will do or when.”
The men were all quick to praise the help they did receive from UNHCR. At least there seems to be some hope, but the road to freedom is still a long way off for these people who have already suffered so much.
“Human rights are very nice.”
“I was taken in a truck, by a driver with a gun. The man was chewing Kratom leaves (a stimulant). There were twelve of us in the back of the van. Not all were Shan. Some were Arakan or Mon (two ethnic minorities in Burma). The driver was Thai. It took two days three nights to get here (Malaysia). At that time it cost 1,800 Ringit ($592 USD).” Hsai Khun, (not his real name), was telling me the story of how he came to be a Shan refugee in Malaysia.
“When we go, the agent he will ask, which way do you want to go? The more we pay, the more comfortable the ride,” he continued.
Five hundred dollars could be several years’ wages for a poor Shan farmer, living in Burma. Unfortunately, the price of freedom has increased.
“Now we pay 37,000 Baht (more than $1,000 USD).”
For many of the Shan, suffering inside of Burma, escaping to Malaysia would be an unobtainable dream. But it is only the first in a long sequence of steps toward resettlement in a free country. After arriving in Malaysia, the Shan should obtain a community ID card, then register with UNHCR. Sadly, very few of the Shan refugees in Malaysia get this far, however.
“We cannot get UNHCR for everyone,” the Shan community leader explained. “We have about 5,000-6,000 Shan refugees in Malaysia. Only 1,500 are registered with the UNHCR. Four thousand have our community ID card.” He went on to say that he hasn’t been able to help as many Shan as he would like. “Many people don’t know that we have an office.”
“UNHCR only does registration once per year. Last year, about 400 registered, but less than 200 were recognized and issued cards by UNHCR.”
At that rate, to register all of the 6,000 Shan in Malaysia would take 30 years. Of course, as the war and the genocide in Burma continue, the refugees will keep coming.
“They come in day by day. Every day, more people come and don’t know to register with us. Some people come to Malaysia, but they are afraid to come here and register because they are afraid of getting arrested.”
Switching gears, I asked about Shan families and children. As far as I knew, most of the refugees were men.
“There are some children here. Some people come with their families. There is a school for them in the refugee center, but not many. We only have about six or seven students. The parents send them here to learn, then, later, when they can read and write, they go out and new people come. They are coming and going. Many come and learn for a few months and then go away,” explained the leader.
“The new arrivals sometimes leave their children at the school. They study and sleep there, and the teacher takes care of them.” Upstairs from the school is a Thai prayer room with a Thai monk. “The Monk also helps teach classes.”
“We only accept very young children. They must be under 18. If they are 19 and want to learn, maybe we can accept them. Most who come are men. Even the children are fifteen or sixteen which means they can work and make money already.”
Many of the refugees, even at age sixteen, have never attended school.
“One of our kids is 12 and one 16. And they don’t even know how to read and write. So, they stay in our school hostel. We educate them in English. UNHCR gives some support, and they also provide teacher training. So some of our refugees who have some education already go for teachers’ training. We have two Shan who have been through teacher training, and they help us to be self-sufficient. We have one volunteer foreign teacher, from England, who teaches English. And the Monk also helps us a lot with teaching.”
“The government doesn’t allow the refugees to go to school. Since 2010, the government has given us an opportunity. There is one private school which will accept refugee children, but we must have the UNHCR card, and we need to pay the school fees.” It costs 60 Ringit a month in school fees and 60 Ringits in bus fees. “Most refugees can’t pay it though.”