This is the final segment of a three-part story by Antonio Graceffo on the difficult and perilous plight of Shan refugees in Malaysia.
“In the history books in Burma they change everything. If they can change history it’s not history. It is their story.”- Burmese refugee in Malaysia.
“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 9.00pm, 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.”
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“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 what was in their heart, 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. They 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 recognised 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 Malaysian 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 labour. 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 labour, they all reported having been beaten, tortured, starved, and often raped or they witnessed killings. Often, the forced labourers 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.”
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.”
Visit his website: www.speakingadventure.com