They tell the story of life in Burma—why they had to flee—and why
their lives are still at risk in Malaysia.
Introduction: Life in Burma
In 2004 I travelled to central Burma in order to practice Buddhist meditation at one of hundreds of monasteries there. Every night the sounds of chants mixed with the tinkling of temple bells rising high above the Auerwaddy River, across the water from the bustling commerce of Mandalay. While I can’t forget the tranquility and ancient beauty of the place, my strongest memories of Burma are what I encountered after I left the monastery.
When a broken train track forced me to take a taxi outside of the normal tourist circuit, I saw what the Burmese military government did not want foreigners to see: Girls no more than ten years old stooped over shovels as they dug a new road in the scorching Southeast Asian heat. And boys armed with rifles as big as themselves as they sat atop a military truck that passed my bus. But when I asked people in Burma about what I had seen, their eyes turned dark and they quickly looked away. It wasn’t until I befriended two monks in Rangoon that I began to understand–and learned why my questions were too dangerous for the people to answer.
According to these monks, the military junta sends its soldiers to the poorest villages and demands high sums of money from every home. Those families who cannot pay are forced to “donate” a child to the army instead.
Many families send their children to the monasteries, which have become like welfare centers in many of the villages, providing food, education--and a safe haven protecting the children from the junta "drafts."
I returned to New York, but I never forgot those children I had seen on those roads at some distance away from the main Burmese towns.
In October 2007 I returned to Burma in the immediate aftermath of the brutal military crackdown on the monk-led protests.
It was the first large-scale public demonstration since 1988 when the junta killed over 3,000 protesters. Two years later in 1990 pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi won the general election by a landslide. She was prevented from taking office–and placed under house arrest. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 she has remained under house arrest 13 of the last 19 years. In May 2009 she was taken to Insein Prison accused of violating the terms of her house arrest due to a bizarre incident involving an American national who was trespassing on her property.
In the fall of 2007 it seemed that everywhere I went in Rangoon people wanted to talk. Emboldened by the monks and by their own participation in the protests the Burmese felt they finally had the world’s attention and it seemed to me that this compelled them to speak at last. So behind closed doors with the shades pulled down and the music turned up, I let them–after they assured me they were aware of the risks of doing so. When I left Burma I flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in order to interview recent Burmese refugees who could speak more freely about life in Burma.
But what I discovered is that for many of these refugees, who fled for their lives from Burma, what they found waiting for them in Malaysia was equally as tragic.
Copyright © Karen Zusman. All rights reserved. New York, NY, US.