I asked if he had a family.
“I was already married in Burma. Then I sent for my wife and two children. I already had the experience of hiding in the car, so I knew to pay more to bring my family here so they could come comfortably and safely.”
“Will you get resettled?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I have refugee status now.”
I asked about the election in Burma.
“They selected a military man to be the ruler of Burma,” explained one refugee, a college graduate, now working part time in a restaurant. “This is not an election, this is a selection. They chose their own people and changed the name, and called it an election.”
Burmese exiles in other countries told me that they were surprised to find out that their votes had been cast, on their behalf, either at the embassy or back in their home village, without their knowledge. And of course, those votes went in support of the SPDC. “Maybe you voted for the junta and don’t know it,” I suggested.
With little or no hope on the political front, talk drifted to the war.
“I think they are going to attack all of the rebels,” explained a man who had recently been notified that he would be resettled. He still kept his eyes on Burma, although, hopefully, he would soon be going to a land of freedom. “Now there is a lot of fighting in Shan State, and people are running away. The army has taken all of the property of the Shan. I think hard times are coming to Shan State.”
“The junta have big weapons. The rebels have small weapons. What can they do?” asked another man. He had recently married a Shan refugee woman, and now the two eked out an uncertain living with their part time work.
All of the refugees were in agreement that they didn’t want to go back to Burma. But the subject of Thailand came up a lot. There are thought to be between one and two million Shan in Thailand.
“Kuala Lumpur is better than Thailand. At least we can get recognized by UNHCR here,” explained the newlywed. “Even though only a few of us get recognized, it is still better than Thailand. In Thailand, UNHCR doesn’t recognize Shan. They say Shan and Thai are the same ethnic. But security here is worse.”
All of the men agreed that security, meaning getting arrested, was their biggest concern.
Earlier, one of the refugees, a YouTube fan, had recognized me from my Burma videos. Now, several men commented on the fact that they had watched me in Martial Arts Odyssey. Now, they were ready to talk. The YouTube fan asked me, “Do you know about a school for human rights?”
In my experience, somehow, the minute a young Shan person learns English, they go online and learn about Human Rights. I have worked with and reported on tribes and ethnic minorities across Asia, but I have honestly never met a people like the Shan. My opinion is probably biased by the fact that I am mostly meeting very intelligent people, rather than a fair cross section of the population. But, the fact still remains that I have never encountered this phenomena in other ethnic groups. The Shan seem incredibly adept at learning English and then actually putting it to use, informing themselves about world events, world history, and subjects relevant to their struggle.
Nearly every English-speaking Shan I have ever worked with or interviewed could talk intelligently about Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, the Dali Lama, and even Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Minh.
Maybe the Burmese government is right for blocking the internet and stopping education in Shanland. I couldn’t imagine what an entire generation of educated Shan could do to the junta.
“In Burma, I didn’t know about Human Rights. I heard that first in Malaysia,” the YouTube fan told me. “Back in Burma, we live like blind. They close the door on information. They block our way, and don’t let us know about human rights.”
Talking to refugees is often a somber experience, but in this case, I was smiling inside, almost crying as his youthful enthusiasm and the simple correctness of what he was saying infected me. He was like many of the Shan I had known when I was embedded with the Shan Army. They were bright, intelligent young people who had always suspected something had been stolen from them. The minute they learned English and gained access to a computer, they confirmed their suspicions and then educated themselves on what it was exactly they had been robbed of.
“My friend worked for an NGO. He told me about human rights. I think human rights are very high intelligence. I feel so proud about that.”
His next statement was so perfect, it was like Muhammad Ali saying, “No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”
“Human rights are very nice.”
Yes, I agreed, human rights are nice.
“In the history books in Burma they change everything. If they can change history it’s not history. It is their story.”
“The first time I came to Malaysia, I see the Malaysia is very freedom. You want to go somewhere you can go, no one block your way,” said a Shan refugee who was a fan of Martial Arts Odyssey, my web TV show. “My country is not like that. After 9 pm, you cannot go out of the house. If the military saw you on the road they would beat you up, they would beat you.
“When I was young, staying with my family in my home town I didn’t know about the information that military is beating the people and killing them, burning our farms. I didn’t know. The information is blocked.
“When I came outside, I have freedom of information. We get to know everything they are doing to us.
“Before I came to Malaysia, I didn’t know about internet. We didn’t know anything in Burma. I came here, and I saw even a small baby can use internet. They are professional already. They are higher than me, higher than us.
“It is better here than Burma. Even though we are refugees here, we have more rights than in our home town. But we also don’t want to move our home town.”
This was an important point, which I had only recently come to understand. Shan people are fleeing Burma in droves. They go to Thailand, or in this case, Malaysia. But this is not what they want. What most of them want is for the fighting in Burma to stop. While they may openly dream of resettlement in the US or Australia, what they all told me, when they revealed their hearts, was that they just want to go back to a free and democratic Burma.
That is what this man meant, when he said, “But we also don’t want to move our home town.” He still wished he could live in his home town, but life there is simply untenable.
“Our Shan culture is that we don’t want to go to a foreign country. If we had a choice, we would go back to Burma. So many only stay here four or five years, and then they go back.”
“In our country is the military law. The blocked Skype, Facebook, and information. They have bad policy, no human rights. Everything under control.”