To mark World Refugees Day on 20 June, we are carrying a three-part story by Antonio Graceffo on the difficult and perilous plight of Shan refugees in Malaysia.
Human rights are very nice.
– Quote from a Shan refugee who is a big fan of Martial Arts Odyssey.
‘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 RM1800 ringgit (US$592).” 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.
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Five hundred dollars could be several years’ wages for a poor Shan farmer living in Burma. Unfortunately the price freedom has increased.
“Now we pay 37,000 baht.(more than $1000).”
For many of the Shan suffering inside of Burma escaping to Malaysia would be an unattainable 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 the UNHCR. Sadly, very few of the Shan refugees in Malaysia get this far.
“We cannot get UNHCR for everyone,” the Shan community leader explained. “We have about 5000-6000 Shan refugees in Malaysia. Only 1500 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 recognised and issued cards by UNHCR.”
At that rate, to register all of the 6000 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. Everyday, 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 centre, 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 15 or 16, which means they can work and make money already.”
Many of the refugees, even at age 16, 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 teacher’s 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 RM60 a month for school fees and RM60 for bus fares. “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 eye 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 recognised by UNHCR here,” explained the newlywed. “Even though only a few of us get recognised, it is still better than Thailand. In Thailand UNHCR doesn’t recognise 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 recognised 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, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and even Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Minh.
Maybe the Burmese government is right to be blocking the internet and stopping education in Shanland. I can’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 man 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 makes for a sombre 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.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.