Burma Link | January 6, 2017
Two decades ago, Mae Lay left everything behind and fled a major Burma Army attack around Kyaik Hto in his Karen homeland. Together with hundreds of other civilians, he ran for his life, finally reaching the safety of Thailand over two months later. Many others were not as lucky. “If you were fast enough to run, you would survive,” Mae Lay says. “Some died, some had their limbs and hands blown off by the land-mines, some were arrested.” Mae Lay finally found shelter in Mae Sot in a Mosque that continued to provide protection and aid for civilians from all religions for years to come. Years later he was granted refugee status and moved to Nu Po refugee camp, where he continues to live with no prospects to return. If Mae Lay cannot move to a third country or live in Thailand, he hopes to stay in the safety of the camp. Living in limbo and uncertainty for years, however, hasn’t been easy, especially as this dedicated husband and father struggles to provide for the family and look after the household whilst also caring for his wife who suffers from a mental illness. Mae Lay is also a Karen revolutionary, and continues to help the Karen National Union (KNU) when his help is needed.
Running for life: “Together we all had to flee, both Muslim and Karen refugees”
My name is Mae Lay, I am a Burma national, born in Karen State and follow the religion of Islam. Where I was living, in Kyaik Hto Township, civil war broke out. I fled to Thailand under the plan provided by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], I arrived at the border and settled in Mae Sot. This civil war began when the Tatmadaw [Burma Army] Brigade 5 led an attack against the Karen revolution armed group near the Kyaik Hto area, and all the villagers from my village had to move away, leaving everything behind. People scattered everywhere; some remained in the country and others came around the border.
When I left Kyaik Hto, the civil war broke out around the villages near the town, villages such as Kyar Inn Seik Gyi, Kawkareik, and Myawaddi. The military troops marched their way around the towns. When the war broke out in the areas where the military troops had been set up in, the villagers had to flee into the jungle and mountains and hide themselves. … we had to run from the shootings.
Between November 1996 and March 1997 was when the attacks started, but the civil war [heavy fighting] only lasted around 45 days. There is a Muslim village, and a mosque in Kyaik Hto. I lived in the middle of the two, [in an area] which was predominantly Muslim, and the Karen and Burmese [Burman] people lived near the town and in the villages as well. Around 60 villages were near the town, of mostly Karen people; only one Muslim village was there. The Tatmadaw soldiers were the ones that attacked the villages. They targeted the mosque to destroy it, and they wanted to get the Muslim people out and away from the village. They just wanted to get rid us off so they sent their troops through our village. They wanted to remove all the Muslim people from the country, that was what their aim in Kyaik Hto.
When they came to the Muslim village, the Muslim people fled all over the land before coming to Thailand. They did not like us living where we were, so they drove us out and over the border to Thailand. They didn’t just drive the Muslims though, they drove other ethnicities away from their villages too; some to Thailand, some to Seik Gyi, some in Kawkareik and Myawaddi, all over. The UNHCR set up an IDP [internally displaced person] camp within Burma close to Kyaik Hto Township, where they [IDPs] were provided with similar amenities as us [refugees], like rice, oil and so on.
When I meet people I say that I am a Karen of the Islam religion. The Karen and the Muslims are friends and allies, in the past and now, there is no problem between us. The Karen were also persecuted while the Karen and Burmese armies were in conflict, but this has stopped now for around two or three years. But together we all had to flee, both Muslim and Karen refugees.
Long journey to safety: “After two and a half months of fleeing, I was sent to the other side of the border”
At that time, there were 400 people in total that left and fled from the villages. If you were fast enough to run, you would survive. Some died, some had their limbs and hands blown off by the land-mines, some were arrested – I was not arrested because I managed to get to the other side, the Way Lay area. Originally I was in a group when we started to run, but the soldiers knew our whereabouts and contacted each other; the people I ran with did not get to Thailand. So they took up different paths, some ended up with the enemy on their way, but I didn’t – the enemy is Na Ah Pa [Burma Tatmadaw]. I managed to get to Mae Sot, Way Lay, Phop Phra area. I was single; I didn’t have a wife and a child at that time – you could say, I was a [KNU] revolutionary.
When they were arresting people, I was there and I too was arrested before I escaped across the border – General Sai Maung Thit [unconfirmed name] and General Khin Nyunt gave the agreement talks, and offered that if we, the Muslims, gave them young beautiful ladies, they asked for 15 girls to entertain themselves, we could cross the border. But we didn’t. Who could give up their daughters? We asked them what they needed instead, and they asked for money. They kept us there for 4-5 days until we had to bribe them with 100,000 kyats and two cows for an agreement to let us go cross the border with a pass for a month. They bought beers and stuff like that, some people were unable to pay this, but they let us all go together. After that, every one of those 400 people were freed. They gave us 4 bags of rice, and said, “Go wherever you like!” We all continued the journey by cart, and since my relatives were in Kawkareik Township, I went there. Some continued further to Seik Gyi and Kawkareik Townships. People went where they wished to go.
We were unable to stay there for too long though, as the Burma Army came to check if there were any people from Kyaik Hto. They came to arrest people three or six days later, so we had to run again. Others were arrested and accused of coming from the black areas. They [Burma Army soldiers] asked, “Why you guys came; where is the armoury and guns? Are you the rebels, and so on?” I’ve heard many stories of people stepping on landmines. After we arrived here I heard a boy stepping on a landmine, and he was carried away. We heard from others that there was someone else who stepped a landmine, and they went to pick them up to the base. We asked the boy where he stepped on the mine. He replied that he was carried away to hospital by Thai soldiers because he stepped on the mine along the border between the fences, there were no iron posts and fences, we were all around the border at that time. […] After two and a half months of fleeing, I was sent to the other side of the border, Thailand.
Life in Mae Sot: “The mosque provided shelter and aid for people with different religions too”
When I arrived in Mae Sot I did nothing special, I came as a worker with the car which carried trade goods to Mae Sot. When I arrived, I worked as a general labourer, I did anything I could, such as cooking, sweeping the floors and cleaning the Mosque in Mae Sot. Like me, there were others coming to the Mosque from the borders, around 40-50 people. Generally, I worked as a carpenter or a drain cleaner, then later I followed the political path. I started in the Mosque though as I was alone and they gave me a place to live. There were many other refugees there, people who were arrested by the police in Bangkok, who had nothing to eat nor drink, we all gathered into the Mosque.
At that time I was not registered with a refugee status, I did this in 2003. I became a refugee because I could not go back to my place in Burma. I could not hitch-hike with any cars because I did not have an ID card, there were a lot of military vehicles around the gates. Can you go back without the ID cards in your hands, of course not! That’s why I was stuck in the Mosque. I had relatives, but didn’t know where they lived. I know I have relatives at Kawkareik, but I don’t know of their whereabouts. It took me 10 years to reunite with my relatives.
A lot of people came from different places with different ethnicities – Muslims, Burmese, Karen – about 100 households, people scattered all over the place due to the civil war. There were maybe more than 100 people that stayed in the Mosque in Mae Sot. If there were 50 households, there were 1 or 2 or 3 members in one households, right? So it was about 200 members. The mosque provided shelter and aid for people with different religions too, they were provided for temporary shelter.
Some of the land was owned by the Mosque’s compound; people built small tents and took shelter temporarily in Mae Sot before we asked for registration at the UNHCR. On my first arrival there was only one person at the Mosque. Then 3 or 4 people came in 3-4 days later, and 10 more after one month, etc. There were some people who couldn’t get the UN registration; around 3-5 households because they had retail shops and they lived in the city, holding 5-year-/ 10-year ID cards. When they fled originally, they brought money with them but for me, I was alone with my body and soul. There were some relatives of theirs living in Thailand, so they were unable to get processed.
I lived in the Mosque for around 2 years from 1997 to 1999. I struggled on my own and stayed on my own starting from 1997 to another six years. While I lived in Mae Sot, the La Wa Ka [Burmese term to refer to authorities/police] chased people to arrest them. I had to hide myself upstairs, downstairs, here and there, just all over Mae Sot because I had no legal cards. All other ethnic people were chased to be arrested also.
Registering with the UNHCR: “We became [registered] refugees and entered the camps waiting to be resettled”
I heard of the UNHCR registration when I met a person that came to my shop to eat betel nut leaf. He told me, “You are from Kyaik Hto. Why don’t you register with the UNHCR?” I did not have an ID card, so I replied, “Aye, I want to [register as a refugee]. I heard the UN does not call anyone in yet.” “Then go check and see how it is now,” he told me. So I went to the UNHCR office to check, and met with an associated person at the office. “Come any time tomorrow,” he told me.
The person who helped me was a student, I mean, from ABSDF [All Burma Students Democratic Front] students’ group. At that time, I did not get the UN registration right away because I was asked if I knew English. Which I did not. The UNHCR at the time asked, “Are you from the students’ organization (like ABSDF)?” “No,” I replied. “If not, your application is not accepted,” I was told and asked to go away.
Then the time passed for around 8 months. After 8 months, I happened to meet a Karen woman … and she asked me, “What are you doing here?” “I was applying for UN registration,” I answered. “In order to apply for it, I have to know English and be a part of students’ organisation.” “Oh, not like that! You go and apply for it one more time.” She told me to go back and wrote a word or two on the paper and gave it to me. So I went to apply again and was accepted. She came back from England, Naw — —! She is a Karen woman, from this camp. For the very first time I was able to apply for the UNHCR registration [in 2003], and now all the Muslims have been able to apply, but before that we Muslims had no chance.
At that time, until 2001-2002 only students could apply. No other groups were allowed, maybe only one or two people. The door of acceptance for the UN’s registration was opened in 2003 and everyone came to register. There were around 20 Muslim households registered with the UNHCR. Some have already gone to America, some to New Zealand or Australia, they all came from Mae Sot to Nu Po.
Long wait for resettlement: “I am responsible for the whole family and balancing my work life, whilst taking care of my wife and my child, is not easy”
The 20 Muslim households originally came from Kyaik Hto, they all gathered together in one place and registered with UNHCR in 2003, then were sent in 2006 to Nu Po. Some travelled far, through the mountains and jungles to come to the camp, too many people. We became [registered] refugees and entered the camps waiting to be resettled abroad.
Since I have been registered I have been waiting to be granted resettlement to a third country, I have undergone the interview and medical checks necessary for the resettlement process and got offered a place in America in 2008-2009, however I have been under a ‘HOLD’ [temporarily being held back with the process] status for 7 years now. The UN has not attempted to rearrange the move to another country in this time, so I have been stuck here.
With my resettlement plans, whenever I go to see the UNHCR, they always suggest applying for sponsorship in Australia, because it is currently not possible to resettle in the United States of America. But I don’t have any family or friends in Australia, so how would I get sponsorship there? If other countries had already sponsored my family, the UN would let us go. Now I have quit the process of resettlement to the United States, so any country that would take us now would be fine. I quit because the UNCHR advised me to, with the assumption that the process would be quicker and they would change my resettlement country to Australia. But even if Denmark or Finland could offer us refuge, we would go, the three of us, my family. As we are all registered with the UNHCR we will go together as an MPO [recognised refugee member who are available to be resettled by the UNHCR].
Dedicated husband and father: “I am responsible for the whole family and balancing my work life, whilst taking care of my wife and my child, is not easy”
Because of the issues that I have faced with resettlement, my 11-year-old son has been unable to continue his education. My wife is suffering from psychiatric issues without treatment, so she is unable to work at home. I am responsible for the whole family and balancing my work life, whilst taking care of my wife and my child, is not easy. We had a second child who unfortunately passed away.
I have tried to send my son to school but cannot. I am unable to take care of him, I can’t buy clothing for him, he needs preparation before school in the morning, but I am very tired from my work and therefore unable to prepare him for school. My wife can’t help me either, and due to him being absent all the time we withdrew him from school. I am going to try to send him to school next year, maybe somewhere outside the camp, a boarding school.
My wife is very unwell though, her disease is untreatable and incurable. When she gave birth her blood pressure rose too much and too quickly, this caused her to experience great anxiety. I hope she will get better soon though as she doesn’t seem to have got any worse. She just sometimes loses control of herself. She has moments of clarity but when she has conversations she can’t understand the flow of the conversation or the tone of it, she just understands what she says, but the person speaking to her may understand her differently to what she is attempting to say. Fortunately though she doesn’t require healthcare assistance, I simply need to remind her to do things like eat, and cook. Her condition more affects her ability to recognise what she is saying, or forgetting what she is doing. She has undergone tests paid for by UNHCR, and it suggests that she doesn’t have a mental illness; she will get better over time, but when her blood pressure raises, this is when she is affected.
When I leave my wife and child I do not go to work in a simple life: I am part of the KNU, but not a full-time soldier — when the group needs my help, I will go to help them. But my other job is cutting the Areca [betel] nut, I get between 70 to 150 kyat per day. In Thailand, there are many people the government don’t accept as refugees, only a few are seen as refugees by the government here, and the Border Consortium is supporting us by giving us food.
We only want to be treated with humanity, to be given documentation that allows us to freely work.
No return: “I have asked everyone’s opinions about returning to Kyaik Hto and they all reply with the same answer, ‘We are not going back.’”
I don’t have Burmese citizenship, [because] I lived in a black area. The people from there if they return could be punished with a jail term of 4 or 5 years, so why would I return? I don’t want to get Burmese citizenship anymore, I want to go to live in a third country. I have not been back to Burma since I left.
[Some] people that are Buddhist and Christian are able to return to their homes now, [but] us Muslims can’t. The Mosque that was in the town has now been bulldozed by the Burmese military, we only found out about it from the news, they just didn’t want Muslims in the town. That was the main Mosque, there were small Mosques in the town, more like houses really that served as a secondary Mosque, I’m not sure if they are destroyed though as they were simply houses. This was the thing, it was only the Mosque that was targeted; the Buddhist temples and Christian churches were left untouched. […] This has been happening since 1997, now we can return to the town, but only to visit, we cannot start our life again there.
When I left, there was a Muslim population of around 200 houses, with the small villages it would probably be in the region of 500-600 Muslim houses. But now we have nothing left there; since the military occupation, everything has been gone. There is no returning, no life to go back to. Their main purpose was to drive us away for good; we have no identification of household registration. Almost no one has ID cards, except for the elders because they did not take part in the revolution or any politics, they just worked their own businesses. They are in an area called the ‘Black Area’ according to the military, but we call it Kaw Htoo Lay [the name for free Karen homeland]. Some Karen and Burmese also go without identification in this part, but now that the ceasefire agreement has come into place, they may have IDs provided to them.
I have asked everyone’s opinions about returning to Kyaik Hto and they all reply with the same answer, “We are not going back.” We will leave if we are sent to any third country, if not, let us stay in Thailand. If we are given neither of these options, instead of sending us back to Burma, let us stay here, in this jail-like-place. This is the desire of the Muslims. We are not recognised as a national citizen. They only recognise us as Muslims from India, but we were born in Karen State, and our grandparents [ancestors] were Karen, Pa’O, ethnicities from Burma. We are not given the citizenships because we believe in Islam, because we are Muslims.
Meaning of Islam: “The Mosque is still helping people [from all religions]”
Islam to me means that we abstain from immoral acts and practice our lives in a good way. Other people think that Islam is very strict, but this is only the extremist perspective of Islam. I will tell these people openly about my religion, that we cannot know exactly what happens in other countries. And when we do not know exactly the situation we cannot critique one another. The problems in other countries are no concern to us, we are not involved in these situations, we are not extremists. We are not allowed to kill other people, this is not a part of the Koran.
I dare not go to other places except for Mae Sot, but for now I am going to Mae Sot as a [fake] missionary; I have to wear a religious uniform that shows I am a missionary so that the police won’t bother me. I am working with Muslim youth, to encourage them, help them and show them not to destroy their lives, by bringing down the Muslim reputation, gambling or drinking alcohol. We spread awareness of our religion to the youth and bring them to the Mosque to help them and give them food. We share our religious experiences with them and they are given time to worship five times a day. We try to get donations from the rich Muslim people, or whoever come to the Mosque to help or give food donations.
The Mosque has continued helping people [from all religions] if they face a lot of difficulties. For example, during the Saffron Revolution [in 2007] and other major crisis.