I’m sitting on the porch in a low wooden chair in front of the open doors leading to the common room. The wooden porch runs the length of the building and is covered by a grass-thatched roof that absorbs the rain falling outside. It’s summer in Thailand, and it’s always raining.
We live in a long house on small stilts, one of many buildings that outline the central grassy field. It sits directly across from the school’s entrance gate. Behind the house is the jungle path leading into the village of No Boh, a small community nestled on the banks of the river that separates Thailand from Burma. It is populated mostly by Karen people (pronounced Kuh-REHN) and is in close proximity to the Mae La Refugee Camp. Established in 1984, Mae La Camp houses 50,000 refugees from nearby Burma, 90 percent of whom are Karen. Most of our students at No Boh Academy are also Karen refugees. They live at the school, while their families live at the camp.
Teachers live at the school as well, including three of us teaching English. We spend most of our time on the front porch — preparing lessons, talking, reading and hanging out with students. Tonight, I hear beetles chirping, the cook cleaning up after dinner and the children laughing in the dining hall. Breathing in fresh rain and the setting sun, my eyes drift shut.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and look at my watch. Funny. I wear a watch here but not at home, seeking to keep time in a place that is not dictated by it. It is just past 7 p.m., after dinner but before the students are required to be in their dorms.
This particular student standing next to me comes to the teacher’s house every night. I still remember his inquisitive eyes and his distinctive English. I remember our conversations and his questions. I call him “Baw,” a common title for our students. He smiles in greeting, but rarely anytime else. This is so unlike the Karen culture, which highly values the art of smiling. He is mostly quiet in large groups, always sitting with a thoughtful expression on his face. Like many of my students at that time, he is in his early 20s and older than me.
I often find Baw pouring over the encyclopedias and an old version of the Guinness Book of World Records that we have in the common room of the teacher’s house. Baw loves history and has an incredible capacity to remember details. He speaks about European history with authority, gaining most of his knowledge from the incomplete set of encyclopedias. I often sit with him separate from the rest of the teachers and students socializing on the porch, laughing and singing along to someone strumming the communal guitar. We discuss the World Wars, the Holocaust and the U.S.S.R. He teaches me just as much as I teach him.
Tonight, as I struggle to wake up from my brief rest on the porch, Baw stops tapping my shoulder and hands me a stapled packet. It is about five pages, typed in English, with handwritten Karen on the back of each page. “I was wondering if you could read this, and then explain it to me?” he asks. “No one has ever taught me this, and it is not in the encyclopedia.”
As I begin reading, I realize this will take some time. Baw just handed me the history of his people.
• • • •
A few nights later, I meet Baw back on the porch, under the single light in front of the common room, to talk about the history packet.
Entitled “Understanding Burma’s Problems” and written by a Thai pastor working with refugees, the document gives a brief account of the nation’s independence and turmoil, focusing on the Karen more than the other ethnic tribes also caught up in the on-going civil war. I had heard briefly about the situation during my volunteer orientation, but in reality I knew very little.
“Do you know what a federal union is?” I ask.
“Like America and its states?” Baw responds.
I nod and continue to explain what I learned from the packet. After independence from Great Britain in 1948, and under the leadership of a man named General Aung San, ethnic leaders in Burma signed a treaty to form a federal union. But Aung San was assassinated before the agreement was implemented and civil war broke out with ethnic uprisings all across the country.
Baw sits and listens, intrigued. As I pause, he gently lifts his eyebrows, encouraging me to continue.
“Do you know what a coup d’etat is?” I ask.
“Yes, like in South America?”
I’m not exactly sure what he’s referring to, but I also don’t want to get off topic. So I nod again and continue.
In 1962 General Ne Win took control of the dwindling parliamentary government in a military coup. He suspended the constitution and the military took over all aspects of Burmese life. The ethnic minorities had no place in government, only the majority Burmese held positions of power. General Ne Win ruled Burma until Aug. 8, 1988 when a nation-wide strike started by students led to his resignation. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), run by military generals, took control and announced national elections. That’s when Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the daughter of nationalist hero Aung San, formed the National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won 80 percent of parliamentary seats in the 1990 election but the SLORC ignored the election results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest.
“The military still governs Burma to this day,” I conclude.
I hand him the packet and sit back in my chair.
Baw is quiet for a moment. “Is that all the information? There is nothing more?”
“Well,” I hesitate, “that’s all the history it explained. But it does talk about what the military does to the people, your people. Do you want to know about that? It might be difficult.”
“Yes, please tell me what else it says,” he says frankly. “When I was young, my family and I ran from them. I only have small memories and in my family, we don’t talk about it.” He reaches out his hand with the packet, offering it back to me.
I let out a sigh. I realize I am trying to protect him from a life he has already lived. This part of the packet was difficult for me to read and will be difficult for me to retell. But Baw and the other students at No Boh have experienced at least some of this first hand. So I just read. I don’t look up. I can’t look into his eyes. I tell him, in the author’s words, how the Burmese military regime uses forced labor. They move ethnic groups in order to build infrastructure projects for foreign companies. They relocate ethnic Burmese to these former villages trying to confuse and dispute the origins of ethnic groups and their right to the land. They make some children work instead of go to school and some of these children become soldiers.
There are international problems too. Drugs, mostly opiates, are trafficked into China. The Burmese have bribed Thai officials in order to raid refugee camps. They persecute Karen villages because the majority of this ethnic tribe practices Christianity and the military wants Burma to be a strong Buddhist nation. The author’s solution is not only democracy. He thinks respecting the ethnic ownership of land and honoring the 1948 treaty to create a federal union is the only way to bring peace.
I finish reading out loud and finally look up. Baw is nodding. The history of why he had seen so much suffering is new to him. But the reality of that suffering is not. We sit there for a few minutes in silence. Then the school bell rings, calling all the students back to their dorms.
• • • •
I met Baw in the summer of 2004. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to keep in touch with him. Cultural norms deem it inappropriate. But I have stayed in touch with female students who also visited us regularly on our porch. Some have moved to the U.S. as refugees and have even become U.S. citizens. Others still live in Mae La and other refugee camps along the border. Still others have crossed back into Burma and work with the Karen National Union, the democratic organization continuously working to give Karen a political voice in a federal Burma.
But my interactions with Baw have had lasting impact. Since my summer teaching English at No Boh, I have learned and continue to learn about the situation affecting the friends I met there. I defended my college thesis about civil-military relations in Burma; I held “Free Suu Kyi” events on my campus; I read her writings about democracy, freedom and peaceful protest; I listened to Damien Rice’s “Unplayed Piano” written about Suu Kyi’s house arrest on repeat; and I did my best to follow when Burma made it into the Western news, which was rare.
I watched from afar as Suu Kyi was finally released from nearly 25 years of house arrest in 2010. In the summer of 2012, she traveled back to England to visit her husband’s grave. (He had died almost 15 years earlier while she was under house arrest.) She went to Sweden to accept the Nobel Peace Prize she had won in 1991. She traveled around the world, including the U.S., meeting with political leaders to raise awareness about the situation in Burma.
After five decades of insular military control, things slowly started to change. In 2011, there were 1,673 political prisoners in Burma according to the Wall Street Journal. As of July 2015, there were only 115. The Burmese press is now more autonomous than ever. GDP is rising rapidly, as is access to technology, such as cell phones and the Internet. In October of this year, the military signed a ceasefire agreement with eight different ethnic minorities, including the Karen National Union.
But some things remain the same. Burma spends a higher percentage of its GDP on the military than the U.S., while 70 percent of the population still lives in abject poverty in rural areas. A startling 69 percent still use firewood to cook their food.
In some areas ethnic violence has increased. Systematic persecution against the Rohingya ethnic minority caused 140,000 people to flee their homes in the Rakhine state in 2012, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The majority of the Rohingya people practice Islam and are battling a growing nationalist Buddhist movement. Approximately one million Rohingya lack citizenship and were unable to vote in the most recent elections on Nov. 8, 2015.
In these historic elections Suu Kyi’s NLD party again won almost 80 percent of available parliament seats. And although 25 percent of the seats are reserved for the military and were uncontested in the election, it looks as though — this time around — the military will hand over parliamentary control to the NLD. Regardless, the military will still command the country’s defense and security ministries and has to approve any constitutional changes.
As hopeful as the most recent elections are, there are many questions left unanswered as the NLD prepares to take over political control of Burma in February. And there are many stories left to be told.
It would be easy to reduce the story of Burma to statistics, to data-driven news stories, to politics. But the 20th century history of Burma needs to be told in light of the people who were, and still are, deeply affected by it. People like Baw.
Editor’s note: The refugees referred to in this essay prefer the name Burma over Myanmar for their home country, believing the latter legitimizes the military government.