Burma Link | July 18, 2013
Thazun is a courageous, beautiful and talented young Arakanese woman who talks openly about her life and experiences. Spending her childhood under conditions that many people around the world would find hard to believe, Thazun has never given up hope for a better life. Her father is a politician and always on the run from Burmese authorities, while her mother worked away for years with hundreds of other forced labourers. When growing up, Thazun didn’t know her father, and for over two years, five-year-old Thazun and her sister and brothers were left to survive on their own without their mother or anyone to look after them. When their mother was able to visit them, she found her children almost starved to death. And yet Thazun’s mother had no choice but to leave, unable to help her children or even know if they were still alive. As heartbreaking as her story may be, Thazun shows how determination and hope can lead towards light. This is the first part of her story.
As I was young I didn’t really know about hunger or that I should eat two meals per day
When Thazun was about 5 years old, she was facing near starvation as a result of forced labour demands imposed on her mother. Thazun’s mother was among hundreds of others who were forced to work on a government bridge building project in Rambree Township, Arakan State. People from over 30 villages were forced to leave their families in order to search and collect stones for the bridge.
My mother had to work for forced labour in the road construction… it’s like connecting two islands with a road. They had to collect big stones and take them there. From each village 10 or 20 families had to work for the project. It’s like the age must be over 16 or 18. Only men were asked to work in forced labor, if you don’t have men in the family, whoever is above 18 or woman had to work.
Thazun is the youngest in her family with two older brothers and one older sister. Her mother is a creative woman who has worked as a dancer and a tailor while her father is a Kung Fu master and a politician. When Thazun’s mother was forced to leave, the children paid a heavy prize.
My mother and father weren’t with us, and we had no friends’ parents to look after us. And my sister was the eldest in the family so she had to collect food and look after us. She was very young too, only 15 or 16 years old. Sometimes we had nothing to eat. As I was young I didn’t really know about hunger or that I should eat two meals per day.
She was just away and we didn’t know how she was and she didn’t know how we were
In order to get a little bit of rice, Thazun’s older sister and brothers worked in farms. Her brothers were 10 and 7 years old at the time.
For more than 6 or 7 months we had to survive like that. Sometimes we ate only one meal per day. Just only rice with some salt.
My mother lived away for more than two years. She was able to come back once or twice a month, because when there is high tide, you can’t collect sand and stones in the island. But she couldn’t stay for a longer time as they were only allowed one break per year.
We didn’t have any telephone connections or anything. She was just away and we didn’t know how she was and she didn’t know how we were.
She was very upset because we were almost dying
My mother applied to the authorities and they gave her one time, maybe after 10 months, and she came back.
Thazun’s mother found her children wasting away, having almost starved to death. Thazun’s mother was feeling desperate and hopeless, seeing her children dying and being able to do nothing about it.
She was very upset because we were almost dying.
Yeah, my mother was very skinny [when she came back to see them]… and maybe because she worked too hard, and her eyes were very…She said later it made her feel very sorry. I don’t know how to express that word because it’s something deep inside your heart. When you see your children dying of hunger and… No one really cared for them.
Then Thazun’s mother had to go back and leave her children again. Refusing to go would have resulted in severe punishment imposed on other forced labourers.
The authorities were like, if one person left and didn’t come back they would punish all the people there. They got two meals a day. If they didn’t come back they would stop feeding them and make them work much longer… Ten men were also sentenced to prison and moved to one of the army camps in Maung-Daw for disobeying the orders of the authorities.
… Everyone was suffering from some diseases and some people died there
This time, Thazun’s mother was away for one year and 2 or 3 months.
I can’t remember exactly. She didn’t actually get a break, she fled. She couldn’t bear living there. All the waters were salty, the rivers, everything was salty. My mother said you couldn’t wear your shirt for more than two or three days because it tears from the salt. And you couldn’t get fresh water, there was no water, everything was salty. You could barely get drinking water, you also had to wash yourself in the salty water.
… So everyone was suffering from some diseases and some people died there. My mother was afraid that if she died, all her four children would be left alone. When I was young I didn’t know all those things, but later she told me.
Thazun heard that maybe 10 or 20 people fled from the camp and the authorities punished some girls. Her mother said one authority also raped two girls.
I think there were hundreds of people all together. My mother said more than 100 or 200 people worked there. They had to make camps of coconut trees, to sleep there. They had to build the camps nearby the river and the island. There were some authorities looking over them making sure they were working. When my mother came back I was about 7 years old.
Sometimes they came in the middle of the night to our house with guns, looking for my father
All this time Thazun’s father was involved in politics and had no choice but to stay away from his family.
They would sometimes come and search for him. It was very difficult for our family to stay there with my father.
When Thazun was still very young, authorities would come to their house and ask about her father. Sometimes they would interrogate her mother.
It was really a bad time. When they came to look for my father in the house they would sometimes take my mother to an interrogation center. You have to go there if you are charged with anything and explain. They ask lots of questions. My mother said she had to go there 5 or 6 times. Sometimes they came in the middle of the night to our house with guns, looking for my father. My mother was very afraid. At the time one of our grandmother was staying with us and she cried a lot.
Finally my father fled to Bangladesh. He had to flee because there were posters on the walls searching for my father… he was one of the leading figures in the 88 democracy uprising. So he no longer could stay in the township or in our home country… he had to flee to Bangladesh. During the 88 uprising I was only about 3 or 4 months old.
After Thazun’s father went to Bangladesh the family moved away from Sittwe where Thazun was born.
I was born in Sittwe but soon after my father fled to Bangladesh, a lot of investigations happened, and my mother didn’t want to stay there anymore.
The family moved to Thazun’s mother’s home place.
They said that if my mother returns to her motherland, then she will be arrested and kept in prison
Thazun’s father hasn’t been back to his homeland for about 25 years.
At some point he heard news that my mother was taken for forced labour and he asked her to go visit him in Bangladesh. My mother and my older brother went to Bangladesh to see him but they couldn’t come back because there were some spies in the border town and they passed the information to authorities. They said that if my mother returns to her motherland, then she will be arrested and kept in prison.
So they had to stay there and my other older brother, my older sister and I were left alone again… At the time our relatives couldn’t really look after us because they also had their own families. So I had to stay in a very rural area because one of my aunties lived there. I couldn’t go to school because she couldn’t afford to pay for it.
After about 1.5 years Thazun’s mother called her children back and they went to Bangladesh. Thazun’s other older brother had already left to work in a factory in Bangkok.
Since I was young I didn’t know my father
In 1999 or 2000, Thazun got a chance to go to Bangladesh and meet her father.
For 10 years maybe I didn’t see my father. Since I was young I didn’t know my father.
I was very surprised because before I met him I dreamt of him… When I went there one of my aunties, an old woman, said; ‘Listen your father is coming!’ And I recognised him because I already saw him in my dream. He was wearing one of these patterned shirts and even in my dream he was wearing the same shirt. I had the dream maybe two times. It was something like magic, because I had never seen my father and we don’t have photographs.
Thazun explain that her family didn’t have any photographs of her father or other family because photographs are very difficult and expensive to get done.
Thazun says her mother didn’t tell her what he looks like either. For a long time Thazun’s mother actually thought that her husband was already dead, because they had no contact for about 9 or 10 years.
…My mother was very worried that if I go there I will be arrested
I used to go and come back. It’s easy for me to travel back and forth from Bangladesh because some people don’t know that I’m the daughter of my father. But my sister and brothers can’t, they know. I think they only know that my father has three children, they don’t know me.
At first my mother was very worried that if I go there I will be arrested, but I was fine. If my other family would go, they would be arrested and kept in some place where they cannot really move, it’s like under house arrest. My sister is very interested in working for social and political issues. They are really strict with young people like that, still today.
Thazun says that they can’t really trust the government.
They say we are now in a democratic country and we can do politics openly… but when recently one guy, Ye Min Oo, was involved in political activity he was arrested and put in prison. Only a few days ago. He is Arakanese but he was working in Rangoon. He was put in Insein prison.
They say we are in an open and democratic country but still they are doing these things, so as citizens we can’t really trust the government yet.
When you are a rebel in the jungle you don’t know the situation of your country, you don’t know anything
Soon after fleeing to Bangladesh, Thazun’s father got involved with the Arakanese army, spending years in the jungle.
… When my father worked for the Arakanese army he had to stay in the jungle and could have no contact outside… There are a lot of Arakanese soldiers there based on the Bangladesh – Burma border.
It was very deep in the jungle, and he stayed there for a long time… In the rebel groups you get training for how to use the guns, and he got training for how to search for food. He worked there for 2 or 3 years and then came back to the border town and taught Kung Fu to some young people.
When you are a rebel in the jungle you don’t know the situation of your country, you don’t know anything. And he thought you have to live in the city to do politics, you need to know the situation, and you can demonstrate in front of the embassy or something like that, that could also help foreigners see what’s really happening in Burma.
When Thazun’s mother went to Bangladesh, Thazun’s father was teaching Kung Fu. Soon after, he got involved in politics again.
They understand and they really respect you, unlike Thailand…
Thazun explains that unlike in Thailand, it’s freer to work for politics in Bangladesh.
They know you are from Burma and you came there for politics and not lack of economics or something. You do something good for your country and express yourself to the local people. They understand and they really respect you, unlike in Thailand. Here we can see that if Thai people see you, no matter why you came, they think that you are lower than them, you are inferior.
In Bangladesh doing politics is good, but economically it’s not so good. But they are more open. They are not very strict although they are Muslims, it’s like if you don’t do anything bad to them they don’t do bad to you. They don’t ask for money but here in Thailand they ask you, Thai police ask you all the time. I never saw this in Bangladesh.
I think it depends on how you communicate with authorities but in Bangladesh you have more than 100 ethnicities and Rakhine [Arakanese] is also one of them. They treat some ethnicities differently, and if you want to avoid problems you just need to tell them why you are there and that you work for human rights or something, and they treat you well, they really respect you.
Thazun’s story is based on an interview with Burma Link. Written by Burma Link.