By H. Paladino / Burma Link
The northern Shan state, home to a majority of the Ta’ang people (referred to as ‘Palaung’ by others), is among the least accessible areas in Burma. These areas host some of the bloodiest conflict, the most poppy cultivation, extremely high rates of opium addiction, and crippling poverty. The Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO) has developed an impressive range of programs to empower Palaung women and support and advocate for their communities in the war-torn, drug-ravaged areas in northern Burma–all while combatting gender-discrimination and an epidemic of domestic violence. Three Palaung women, De De, Lway Yu Ni, and Lway Chee Sangar, each from a different Palaung village, sat down with us to speak about their lives, their struggles, and the work of the PWO.
If the fighting happens, firstly, it’s women and children that are suffering
Burma Link (BL): Do Burmese soldiers come to Palaung villages sometimes?
De De (DD): Yes. Not sometimes, very often. That’s why the fighting happens every day. … If the fighting happens, firstly, it’s women and children that are suffering. Most of them are suffering because the men are afraid they will be forced to porter for the military, so they run away and work in another place. And then mostly only women and children have to suffer. Women are left, while the fighting is going on, to care for children and elderly family members. If they have to flee, they have to take the children and elderly with them. And then, when they arrive there, it’s not their home, they don’t have a place to stay. And also no food, no medical. If something happens, they cannot rely on others. Some women, if they are pregnant, it is very difficult for them to move from place to place.
…People are afraid anywhere they are, even when they sleep at nighttime, or… ‘When will the fighting happen?’ If the fighting happens, ‘where will we go, and then…?’
BL: Are there many villages where people have had to flee?
DD: There are many villages; Montone, Namkham–those are townships. A lot of villages. Like Man Pu, Namhsate, and a lot of villages. … We don’t have camps. They don’t have a place to stay. If one place is [dangerous], they have to flee, they just go to those villages, ‘is the village safe?’ And then they flee there. If those villages are not safe then they just flee to another. They just stay in the church or monastery. We don’t have camps. We are not like Kachin. Kachin, they have camps, for the Palaung we don’t have camps. They just flee one place by one place.
BL: Do they have food?
DD: They don’t have enough. … A lot of children, they cannot go to school, because even food and other things they cannot access and how can they go to school? They cannot go.
[They had to stop going to school] since the fighting happened. Since 2012 until now. The fighting is still going on every day. And then I don’t think that their education will be good, because TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army] have announced they don’t have a plan to stop until there is real democracy in Burma. Because the Burmese government troops, they are still sending their soldiers. One month not less than 100 people they sent to northern Shan State.
…Foreigners cannot go to northern Shan State. … They worry that people internationally will know about what happens in the northern Shan state.
Today, the TNLA is fighting off Burmese offensives and combatting opium cultivation in Palaung areas, according to their statement. Civilians are often caught in the cross-fire. Burmese forces have been known to use brutal tactics against civilians in conflict areas, including deadly forced portering and forced labor, torture, killing, and extortion of money, supplies, and drugs.
Organized Palaung resistance efforts began peacefully in 1946. After the military coup in Burma in 1962, the movement for Palaung self-determination took on the form of an armed revolution. Various Palaung resistance groups operated concurrently between 1963, after the 1962 military coup, and now. One such group was the Palaung State Liberation Force (PSLF). The TNLA was formed by the PSLF in 2009. Their long-term aims include self-determination, democracy and human rights for the Palaung people. The TNLA also supports the formation of a Federal Union in Burma to guarantee autonomy for ethnic nationalities.
“They cannot work for everything [they need] for their life, for food.”
BL: How has life changed for the people in the village since the fighting started?
Lway Chee Sangar (LCS): After we have fighting in the village, I know all of the villagers, they cannot all go to work, their job, because they’re afraid. They have to stay at the village because sometimes if they have to go—you know, in our Palaung area, we have no jobs in the village, we have to go to another place–so they cannot go work their job. They cannot work for everything [they need] for their life, for food, they have to just live in the village. If they don’t have food they can ask their uncle and aunt, like this. Also, the children cannot go to school because when we have fighting the teachers don’t want to live in our village. Because they’re afraid of the conflict. So, they go home, they close school for one month, one week, two weeks, like this.
Maybe in 2008, they came in our village—a lot of soldiers in the village. At that time … only one government soldier had come in the village, so at that time we didn’t know how about how they are, and about the government, and about the country’s situation. So, I thought, at that time, if a solider came in the village we have to take care of them, we have to give what they want and what they ask, like this.
“Very far from calm.”
Lway Chee Sangar, a daughter of poor tea farmers, is from a small, remote village in the northern Shan state. To learn more about her story, click here.
BL: What did they do in your village when they came?
LCS: When they came, some soldiers, they didn’t ask us, ‘I want this, and I need this. They already took our things. At that time we [my family] also had a shop and so, the soldiers, they just took our rice, maybe something, and other things, they don’t ask, they only take. Sometime they ask, ‘where is your head villager in the village?’ and we have to call the head villager. And they ask, ‘we want a horse, and we want people to be porters, and we want to eat meat,’ so you have to give meat for the soldiers. We just say ‘we don’t have meat in our village,’ and if we don’t give for them, if they see, like chicken, they already [holds up arms like a bow and arrow]
LCS: Yea, kill … and if we don’t give [what they want], a horse for that, they will call the head villager and they will beat the villagers.
BL: Did they come many times?
LCS: Yes, at that time, they came every day, one week one time, like this.
BL: What is the situation now in your village?
LCS: The situation–just fighting.
In our area, there is fighting around our village. Yes, we are very close. Very far from calm. People who live near town, they don’t have to face fighting, but people who live in the village, they face fighting every day.
Our Palaung livelihood is tea. The tea price is very low. It’s not enough for the family.
DD: We cannot do another thing, only tea [and rice]. But the government has pressed down, they control all the prices, we cannot do anything.
BL: When did tea prices drop down?
DD: Since 2006, I think. Now, with our tea prices, we cannot get enough for our life. And also our Palaung are really very poor, we cannot live like, we can get education and then whatever we would want to do, we cannot do it. And then we can support our children only until five or six standard and then they will have to leave the school and then have to work for their family. That’s why they don’t have any knowledge, and then skills [they really need] to work.
Lway Yu Ni (LYN): I would like to say something about me and my family. I really pity my young sister. Because she didn’t attend to high school. They [my parents] could not support her. I am very suffering for that.
BL: So when did she stop going to school, how old was she when she stopped?
LYN: She started to go… she stopped in high school, since she was 14.
BL: And what has she been doing since then?
LYN: She works with my family as a tea farmer. She … cannot go back, she is 22 now and already has a small child.
Migrant work, for survival
DD: We don’t have a chance to work [other jobs] at my place. So most young people, they just go other countries, like China or Malaysia, and then Thailand and Singapore. They just go and work.
After failing to pass her ten standard, the Burmese standardized test that determines young pupil’s future, De De went to Rangoon to find work. She was unable to take the test again because it is very difficult to pass the ten standard exam without expensive private tutoring and great deal of time studying. After working for several years in a factory in Rangoon, and a few more back on her parents’ tea farm, De De went to Malaysia to find work, amongst many other economically desperate youth from Burma’s ethnic nationality groups.
DD: In 2008, when my younger brother passed away, my parents called me to go back to the village. When I arrive to the village, my mother cried every day, when my young brother passed away. Even if I wanted to go back to Rangoon, I could not go any more because at my home no one is there, only my father and mother. And then I have to work at my village. I had never worked at my village before, I had to start in 2008. Then after that the tea price is not so good, most of the young people went to Malaysia and then my parents they say ‘Oh we will send you.’
And then I applied for the visa and I went to Malaysia for two months. But I cannot work anymore. We had to work, starting from 5 a.m. until 7 p.m. And then you have to stand on the ground the whole day, the whole day, and then my foot became very hurt so I came back to Burma.
After that my sister [cousin], who is our general secretary, she is the one who is the founder of PWO, she called me to join PWO.
Once they are trafficked, they disappear
Despite the grueling labor, De De is fairly lucky. She was able to go freely to Malaysia and soon return home. Another challenge the Palaung face as a result of the dire economic situation: an upswing in human trafficking.
DD:Some people come and call to the village: ‘Oh, if you stay here, no more money, come with me! You will get a good job in China,’ and then they call them to China. And then actually they don’t give them a job, just set them up. Most people, they cannot come back until now. Once they are trafficked, they disappear. … China is very close to the Palaung area, that’s why it is easy to go. When they arrive in China, they find they were trafficked by someone. Most cases are something like that. Some people, they sell their children by themselves. Like in Namkham Township. Some parents sell, traffic their children, you know. Some people, they just want them to marry a Chinese guy. They thought that ‘Oh, we got a lot of money.’ They don’t know that their child was trafficked by Chinese. They don’t know. ‘Oh, my daughter is married with a Chinese guy, they got a lot of money.’
BL: Was it dangerous?
DD: Yeah. It’s dangerous. You cannot face the people that trafficked them.
The greatest challenge of all
Before you could ask one question: ‘How many people are using drugs?’ Now you cannot ask that question. You will have to ask the opposite one: ‘Who are not using drugs?’
DD: Most young people are using drugs. Now our people are almost all gone. Even if they’re just 14 years-old, even 15 years, you know. If your home has four men, right, three men will use it.
BL: Is it this bad in all Palaung areas?
DD: Yeah, everywhere. Everywhere. That is the most challenging thing. That is worse than the fighting.
BL: Why is it so bad?
DD: I think that the first one in this the government… They don’t do anything [to stop it]. Even themselves, they use it. How can they control the people? Like my village, I’m from Namhsan Township. We can’t grow any opium. And also no one can grow it [in that area]. But the drug has become used more and more. Because they get it from the China, easily. And then they bring it to the village. If the government did their job, then people couldn’t traffic the drugs from China to our place.
And then one thing is a person who is in parliament, who sits on the parliament now, Palaung parliament… one is U Kon Temyat, one is “Pansay” Kyaw Myint. U Kon Temyat is in Kutkai. “Pansay” Kyaw Myint is from Namkham. They grow it by themselves. When we had the 2010 elections, he said to the Palaung people who live in Namkham; ‘If you vote for me, I will give you a chance to grow opium, a certain area per family, I will give you a chance to grow.’
Palaung people, if they just work for tea, they cannot survive anymore. That’s why they want to grow opium. If you grow opium a little then you will get a lot of money. That’s why we have to… They voted for him and they got a chance to grow opium. Even a person who is sitting on the parliament. They also they grow it. … Like my village, in front of my house, they sell the drug. And then the police know that they sell and then they just arrest him for one night and they just get money, 300,000 kyat [$300 US] … How can people be afraid of this? 300,000 kyat–they sell the drug only for one week they will get it. That’s why it is very challenging in Palaung areas.
The TNLA know that. That’s why they advocate. ‘Which places are growing the opium?’ And then they destroy the crops. Whenever they go to destroy the opium, the Burmese government fights them.
“Only the name ‘UNODC’ [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime]. They do not do anything.”
We have the UNODC. They are based in Lashio. They are working for the drug, like who is using drug, if they want treatment for the drug. If you go and tell them, ‘Aw, our Palaung people have a lot of people using drugs’. They said ‘How do you know that? If you see a person who is using drugs, just call them to us,’ they said. They don’t take any responsibility for this, they cooperate with the Burmese government, work under them. I don’t know, coming 2015 what will happen in Burma.
Their [UNODC] mandate is to stop the drug, and help people who want treatment for the drug, and then…
BL: Are they helping a lot of people?
DD: No. Only the name ‘UNODC.’ They might do something, but not enough.
They cannot do the treatment for all the people, you know. Like my village, before you could ask one question: ‘How many people are using drugs?’ Now you cannot ask that question. You will have to ask the opposite one: ‘Who are not using drugs?’ So then how could the UNODC call all the villagers and treat them? They cannot do that. The main thing is the government has to take responsibility. And who will use the drug, they have to punish them. … The government, also, they use it, you know, even themselves, they sell it. But they are government, we cannot know that, you know. And some villagers sell it, but they cooperate with the police. If the police come, and they also have to give them the drug and money to the police.
“If their wife doesn’t give the money [for opium], then they just beat them.”
BL: What is it like to have drug addicts in the family?
DD: The effect is, firstly, their wife and their children have to suffer a lot. They will have to work for their husband [to support their habit]. If the women don’t get money for their husbands, then the men will steal rice or other things and then they sell to others. Even the tea plant, they take it out and then sell to others. And then some men, if their wife doesn’t give the money, then they just beat them. Firstly, what will happen is the fighting between them. Then, the children cannot go to school. If their father is using the drug, they don’t know who their daughter is, who their son is, they cannot concentrate on anything. If they want [the drug] then they just do anything. … How can they go to school? They [children] also have to work, even five years, six years old. They have to go to the field and work for the family. … A few women are using it. Because firstly their husband uses it, right, and they try to convince their husband ‘don’t use it!’ They tolerate as much as they can. After that, if they cannot tolerate anymore, become angry and ‘Oh! My husband also use, I will also use it.’ And then become more like this. But only a few women.
Fighting to be heard
We are not equal
LCS: I want to say something about the village, another thing–domestic violence. Not in only our village, around our village, we already face a lot of domestic violence. … If there is domestic violence, if there is fighting with husband and wife, it’s not just in their house–
DD: It will affect other families, too.
BL: So that is a big problem?
BL: Is that common in Palaung areas everywhere?
LCS: I think.
BL: Can you talk about the status of women in Palaung society?
DD: We are not equal. That’s why we [the PWO] are working and fighting on this. Like we can say… If you are a woman you have to be polite, and you cannot laugh very loud. And when you go to a monastery or somewhere, men are up the line, and women down the line. And also women cannot be a head villager anymore. I have never seen a woman as head villager in my village. Only men are head villagers. For the women, they can be only a teacher. Or only an accountant. They cannot be a decision maker.
In Palaung communities, it is nearly impossible for women to be leading decision-makers, even within the home. Should a father die, his son will take over as head of the household, not his mother. Women also cannot participate in village-wide meetings regarding village management. Importance is placed only on the opinions of old men. As a result, not enough concern is taken for women and youth.
I can see that that is changing [since they started working at the PWO]. Before, parents could not send their daughter to other places, travel. And now, we can, we got a chance like this. And also one more thing is, before, if you went to a village to call them to come to be intern here, their parent would not allow. ‘Aw, what you are working, or ‘No, our daughter will be trafficked by someone.’ They just thought like this. And then now, if we go to call for new interns and we want to do training [outside of Burma] or another thing, it is easy to do it.
Learn about the PWO’s work in Part 2 – CLICK HERE
Read the story of Lway Chee Sangar, one of the PWO women interviewed for this story.