For seven days, they were locked in a container, traveling in the back of a truck. With no idea where they were going, they may just as well have been sold into slavery or prostitution at the end. But their situation in Burma was so dire that even taking such a risk seemed worthwhile.
In an anonymous housing block in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a Shan refugee, 29-year-old Hsai Yisep (not his real name) told me the story of his desperate escape from a dictatorial regime. (Most of this text is a transcription from a recorded interview I conducted with Hsai Yisep and other Shan refugees. In some places, I have corrected their grammar, just to make it more readable. But to the extent that I was able, I left the text in their exact words. I have omitted all of their names and been vague about location, for the sake of their safety.)
“The Burmese took our farm, so we didn’t have any way to grow food. Every day, they would come to our village and ask for forced laborers. If we didn’t go, they would just take us and make us work. One day, we couldn’t provide enough people, so they took us. We told them we were sick from working for them every day, and that we didn’t have food for our families. So, they beat us. Our friends came that night and helped us escape.
“I went to Tachilek (on the Thai border, across from Mae Sai). Then an agent came and took me in a container in the back of a car. We didn’t know where we were going or anything. Seven days. Sometimes at night, we would run or walk through the forest, south, all of the way through Thailand to Malaysia.
“When I first came to Malaysia it was so difficult. We didn’t have any ID card and we couldn’t speak Malay or English. I learned a little English here,” concluded Hsai Yisep.
We were seated on the floor, sharing bowls of fresh fruit. At first, the refugees were understandably nervous about talking to me. These are people whose lives hang by tiny threads and blow with the political wind. One of the refugees suddenly said that he recognized me from the videos I had made with the Shan State Army in 2007 and 2008. He smiled broadly. “I saw you on YouTube, and now you are here.” He began telling the other men about me, and several of them turned out to be fans of Martial Arts Odyssey. Suddenly, my job got a lot easier.
The YouTube fan sat next to me and opened up, telling me about the arduous life of the refugee. Little by little, other refugees joined us, and began adding information of their own.
The YouTube fan told me, “Most of the Shan in Malaysia try to find work in restaurants. Some of them can speak Chinese, so they are lucky. They can work in restaurants or as sales promoters. A few of my friends can work in a workshop. They can get better pay if they know how to fix motorcycles and cars. It depends on your experience. If you can speak Chinese, maybe you can get 800 or 1,000 Ringit (about $260-$330 USD). Some people get 1,200 Ringit per month.” He, himself, was working in a restaurant.
Most of the Shan refugees in Malaysia do not possess a Burmese passport or ID card. Inside of Burma, it is extremely difficult for the ethnic peoples to obtain these types of documents. For this reason, their only means of leaving the country is to travel, crossing borders illegally. When they arrive in their destination country, be it Thailand or Malaysia, it is impossible to obtain a work permit or residency visa, because they don’t have a passport. This relegates the refugees to working illegally, and for the lowest wages.
A few of the Shan men I spoke to on this day were university graduates, but they were happy to get work as bus boys in restaurants, earning a few hundred dollars per month.
Although very few of the refugees had any clear plan upon their arrival in Malaysia, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, they explained to me that, after arriving in Malaysia, the Shan refugees should register with the Shan community office. The community will then issue them an ID card. The community card is not a legal residency permit, but at least they have something in their pocket when and if they get arrested. Next, the community will help them to register with the UNHCR (United Nations High Council for Refugees). The final step is that they get in a long cue, awaiting resettlement in a third country.
The line ahead of them moves very slowly, as less than 3% of the Shan in Malaysia will be resettled in a given year. But the line behind them grows longer and longer, as more Shan are driven from their homes by the military junta (SPDC).
But, what would happen if they were caught by the police? I asked a leader of the Shan community office.
“Get caught by the police, if you have the UNHCR card it is not a big problem. But if you have only the Shan community ID card, this is a problem. Sometimes they have combined raids with police and RELA,” replied the leader.
RELA is a volunteer police organization which enforces immigration law. Many international observers, and even the bar association of Malaysia, have petitioned the government to close this force down. Instead, RELA numbers increase each year. Members are often paid bounties for each refugee they capture.
As the government doesn’t recognize the UNHCR card as a legal residency permit in Malaysia, sometimes, even UN-registered refugees can be arrested.
“Every Sunday, the police wait by the lift and ask for your documents. If you don’t have any, they arrest you. They take you to the police station and ask for money. Sometimes our members come here to do their member card and the police catch them. They are scared to come here.
“When people get arrested they have to call the center and we go to get them out of jail. It costs a lot of money. Luckily, the government and the UNHCR together, have said that the police will not arrest our people who have UNHCR card.”
With about 4,000 completely undocumented Shan refugees wandering around, it is just a roll of the dice to see who will get picked up.
“We have about two to three times per week, someone is arrested and we have to go get them out of jail,” said the leader.
“When a Shan refugee is arrested, after two or three days, the authorities will report to the Shan community office that they have some of our Shan in jail. If it is too far, we cannot go there.”
The Shan community office has almost no money. So, even purchasing petrol or train tickets to go bail people out of jail can be problematic.
“If it is close by, we can go there. The police tell us to bring a letter from the police officer who arrested them, and we must go to meet them. Some of the officers are nice, and they will help. Some cases we can negotiate, and some cases we cannot.”
“If we cannot get the refugees out, then they stay fourteen days in lockup. After that, they are sentenced to jail. Some people serve four or five months in jail. After the jail, they are sent to the camp. The camp means ready to deport. Some have been sent back to Burma. But some have been in the camp for a long time.”
When I did similar stories on other Burmese ethnics, I was told that there are refugees stuck in the detention camp for years, with no end in sight. Burma often will not accept them and certainly won’t pay for their deportation. This leaves them in legal limbo.
“If they are in the camp, we report to UNHCR. Then, later, UNHCR will go interview them and maybe UNHCR will bail them out of the camp.”
“UNHCR helps us a lot,” said the Shan leader.
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.”
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.”
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.”