I asked if they had SPDC government spies here in Malaysia.
“Yes, we do. But we don’t know who. It could be anyone. It could be our best friend. We don’t know about their secrets… intelligence. They know everything we are doing. But they also cannot do anything. They can only get information and send back to Burma. But if they plan to do something, we also don’t know.”
He told me that he had studied at university in Burma. “But we didn’t learn Shan history. I didn’t get to know our history till now. They don’t have it in the student book in Burma. In the history books in Burma, they change everything. If they can change history it is not history. It is their story. So we don’t know our history we only know Burmese history.
“I couldn’t write in Shan. I learned here in Malaysia. In Burma they didn’t allow us to teach Shan writing. But we could sometimes learn the reading from Shan karaoke.
“They replaced all of our history with Burmese culture. In Malaysia, we have a big celebration for Shan New Year, in central KL. We started in 2006 and we have every year. In Burma, Shan New Year was outlawed.
“One group of Shan in Burma have forgotten their language. The government prevented them from learning holidays, language, and culture. They have become Burmese already. They can speak properly Burmese, so they are like Burmese already. But they know their parents and grandparents were Shan. They know they are Shan, but they don’t know anything about Shan.
“Can you imagine you cannot do your Shan New Year? It is celebrated according to Shan calendar, usually in November. And then the religious New Year is the same as Thailand (Song Kran), usually in April. We also call that New Year.”
Historically, the Shan and the Thai have been closely related. They share some culture and their festivals. But, it is important to remember that the Shan and the Thai are two unique peoples. And the Shan should be recognized as an ethnic group by the UN and other international organizations.
One of the other refugees told me that he had married a Shan refugee locally. They had a baby, but the baby’s birth was registered by the immigration department. He has a birth certificate, but the baby can’t be considered a Malaysian citizen.
I told him it was sad that his baby can’t be a Malay citizen. Refugee babies born in America are considered US citizens.
“We have no choice. We have a lot of struggle.”
When I asked what the biggest problem faced by refugees in Malaysia was, he answered, “The most challenging is security.” By security, he meant that the refugees get arrested by the Malaysian police on a regular basis.
As much as the refugees are struggling to survive, they continue to do what they can to further the cause of human rights inside of Burma, and to let the world know what the Shan people are suffering.
“In 1990s, we submitted photos and documents of genocide (to the UN). Last year again, in central Burma, the government attacked and destroyed all of the villages. And the innocent people suffer. They (the villagers) have farmland. It belonged to their ancestors, their forefathers, but Burmese government took it away easily. They say will build a railway or a road, so they confiscated the Shan land.”
Large scale infrastructure projects in Burma generally lead not only to land seizure, but to forced labor. Villages are threatened with death if they do not provide a certain number of workers. Many of those workers are never seen again. In numerous interviews I have done with refugees subjected to forced labor, they all reported having been beaten, tortured, starved, and often raped, or they witnessed killings. Often, the forced laborers are used as human mine detectors, being pushed into the mine fields, ahead of the construction project.
I asked my new friend if he had a final message he wanted to send out to the world.
“For the Shan people, what I want to say now, the situation is very bad. We are under the control of the Burmese military. When the Burmese army comes, they (the Shan people) are very afraid. They cannot do anything. They cannot depend on the Shan army to protect them. Example, when the Burmese army comes, the Shan army has to run away. So they cannot do anything. So many girls were raped or taken away. Hard times for Shan people. Even though we have the Shan army, we don’t know when we will get freedom.
“The world must know about this and the world should put pressure on the Burmese government.
“If we are still under the Burmese military, our rights … we have no human rights.”