Burma Link | September 15, 2016
Mee Lay is a 25-year-old inspiring young refugee woman who spent her early years in malaria infested jungle hideouts with constant food insecurity and struggle to go to school. Despite her childhood memories including bombings and flows of wounded soldiers, the biggest challenge for Mee Lay was attaining education. Mee Lay arrived at Nu Poe refugee camp in 2012 after having lived in Ban Don Yang refugee camp in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand, for six years. Growing up amidst armed conflict, Mee Lay and her family finally fled across the border to Thailand during a large scale Burma Army offensive in 1997, first blending into the migrant landscape before moving to Ban Don Yang refugee camp. For Mee Lay, education was the first priority, and after years of struggle, she was finally able to access higher education in Nu Poe refugee camp. There she learned about issues such as human rights, advocacy, public speaking and conflict management. As part of her studies, Mee Lay was even able to go back to her homeland for the first time since she was a little girl, running peace building workshops with local communities. Despite her high level of education–clearly noticeable to anyone engaging with this young talented and open-minded woman–her education is not recognised in Burma nor in Thailand. In this story, Mee Lay shares about her hopes and dreams and also the incredible struggles that she and her family have been through. “I hope that my story, a simple story, is worthy a lesson or case study or something like this for the others to learn,” Mee Lay says humbly, whilst having a profound impact on anyone listening to her.
If they gave opportunities to us, people like us, it would be more beneficial because we know the situation and we have stayed in the camps for a long time
My name is Mee Lay, I come from Burma, I lived in Tanintharyi Division or [more specifically] in Dawei. I have three siblings; I’m the youngest. I came to Nu Poe in 2012. Before that, I lived in Ban Don Yang (BDY) camp which is in Kanchanaburi. There is no higher education [there] so I needed to continue my higher education in Nu Poe because Nu Poe has higher education. So, I came here for my education.
Mee Lay sheds light on the complications surrounding the legitimacy of the education system for those living in the camps. Despite being qualified for jobs that require more responsibility, neither government—Thai or Burmese—gives credence to Mee Lay’s education. This year Mee Lay is doing an internship as the final step of her education, but the lack of recognition of her education brings many uncertainties for her in the future.
I feel sad about one thing; we have skills but the government [and] our host country, doesn’t recognise our skills, which is sad for us. My belief is that it doesn’t depend on the place, it depends on the person who wants to study. Even though the place is not developed, the skills that we get qualify us. We know how to maintain or how to do teamwork or how to make projects—big projects—and how to facilitate, and we also have presentation skills. I think we can work in organisations or we can work in our own organisation as well. I can tell that the school really trained us in working with communities and trained us to be skillful and built us to believe in ourselves and have confidence, yes.
I would like to say that we should recognise this education because we spent our time to study here for a long time. We should get some opportunities from the years that we spent in school. If they don’t recognise it, it appears like they don’t give us opportunities to let us show our abilities or give [us] a chance. Yes, I want to say that if they give [us] a chance, we can do [things] and then we can get developed, I’m sure. Because many of my friends they are really good and smart, yes. Some people can do graphics and they can edit—like newsletters or design—and some people have really good leadership skills or facilitation skills. Some people are persuasive and are really nice when giving awareness training because I think they are more familiar with local people. So then if they gave opportunities to us, people like us, it would be more beneficial because we know the situation and we have stayed in the camps for a long time.
For Burma, I want to see a democratic system that’s fair for everyone…
Mee Lay speaks of her hopes for Burma for the future.
How can they get peace? It’s very difficult to get peace because [there are] many different groups and they have different perspectives. Sometimes I thought [that] I wanted to stay alone and not get involved anymore in the peace [process]. For Burma, though, I think they can get peace if the 2008 Constitution is changed by citizens, and the armed groups agree. They also need to cooperate and change their perspectives because sometimes if we want something we need to be flexible. But now [with] the situation I don’t believe fully that [we can get] peace yet.
Peace is when individuals or people have their freedom to speak or have freedom to express their feelings or have freedom to believe their own religions. There is peace, and then [people] live together with diversity, and then cooperation. [They are] not seen as a different but as the same. Yes, I think that’s peace for me.
In the future, I want to learn first, like in an organisation; some organisation that works with human rights or education is fine for me. And then I would like to—I have a small dream for me—I would like to set up a small school for children, like my own curriculum that I can draw and I would like to set up education that is qualified education. Yes, that’s my dream. I want to set up a school in my village. And then I would like to work with some of my friends to support people who really want education or something like that. I have that kind of idea.
For Burma, I want to see a democratic system that’s fair for everyone, not [just] your state or my state or like this. I don’t want to see that but I want to see only one thing, like this. But that is my own opinion because even though we have like: “I’m here, I’m white, I’m black and this can never be together,” I want to be like the same thing, like this, yes. But we still have culture and our beliefs, like this.
Please don’t discriminate [against] each other…
When prompted about some of the ethnic tensions and discrimination happening throughout Burma, Mee Lay explained some of her thoughts on discrimination.
I saw news on the Rohingya; I’m really sad about that because there’s a lot of prejudice and stereotypes and discrimination. I would like to say not only [for the] Rohingya but every minority ethnic group, please don’t discriminate [against] each other. Don’t have prejudices against the other; as long as we are friends we can know more or we can [learn] not only from the other and on TV. We have prejudices like this; please don’t do that, yes.
Prejudice has also affected Mee Lay’s family life to a degree.
Yes, in my life, actually my family, I have a very happy family but the only thing is that we’re not in the country; [we’re] always outside of the country. And one thing that I really feel sad about [is that] my nieces–I have two nieces who are Muslim because my sister is married to a Muslim. I saw the Rohingya situation, and they [are] discriminated [against] a lot. I felt sad because if my relatives are discriminated [against] by other people I would feel sad as well. So what about them? They also would feel sad; so both sides would not be happy if discrimination is there. I would like to share that and my sister is also not happy. my brother-in-law also; he’s not happy because they’re already divorced and they [have] two children. One child is from the mother’s side and one child is from the father’s side. There is discrimination because of their religions. Starting from there, I wondered why we need to separate religion. And then I decided to turn to Christianity, and since I was a child I thought that we could stay even [though] we are in different religions. I really believe in democracy; then we can choose what we want. A small thing that I would like to share.
My nephew, the oldest nephew, is in Moulmein [in Mon State], he doesn’t attend school anymore, he just attends a religious school; a Muslim school. I heard that he also doesn’t have citizen card; he wasn’t recognised by Burma. He has only some document. I don’t know much about that. I feel sad about that, yes.
My younger nephew is in BDY camp. He doesn’t even know that he is Muslim.
My nephew—both of them are nephews, yes—he doesn’t know that he’s a Muslim now. They didn’t stay together. No, [they have] no contact with each other, but they know about each other because we told them. The last time I saw them was when they were very young, maybe three years or four years [old] or something like this. Now he’s already 15 or 14 years old.
Yes, I hope that my story, a simple story, is worthy a lesson or case study or something like this for the others to learn.
I only know that I was afraid and I heard a lot of screaming and bombing
Mee Lay recounts the turn of events that led to her exodus from her village.
We came to BDY because we couldn’t live in our village. I don’t remember where my village or my hometown is because when we left I was very young. But some parts I remember: that I was still in the jungle, with soldiers, maybe Karen National Union (KNU), and then waiting for my family there for a while and we lived there because our village was destroyed and we weren’t left with anything, like a house or farm. We didn’t have any jobs so we left from there. My father also got involved with the KNU and then the soldiers came to our house and then they destroyed it and then we couldn’t stay there.
My father is not Karen, my father is Tavoy, Tavoy means South Burmese group. They also want to identify as Tavoy but they don’t have a chance to show, but they have some organisations or youth, Tavoy youth group as well. But I don’t know much about that. It’s a little bit strange, I always asked “Father you’re not Karen, why are you involved in the KNU?” He said that it was a situation that turned himself to get involved with the side that is fair because he couldn’t see [stand by] and watch people [Burma Army] come and bully or do very bad things in his village. Actually he was a simple farmer and doing farming, his family is very simple, my grandparents are very simple and they didn’t agree with my father being involved in the KNU.
Then we left and we stayed in the jungle and we stayed there for many years, maybe three years and then the soldiers came again, attacked that area and then we had to run again. There we had a small school, no hospital. And also we did farming but it was not really enough and we had to be scared of everything, like landmines or enemies, so sometimes we didn’t dare to go to find vegetables there for food. Then in 1997 there was a big attack there and then we needed to run. I don’t remember all parts but I still remember the time that I fled—I was young—I only know that I was afraid and I heard a lot of screaming and the bombing. And then we moved to a Thai village and then also there we were not safe because we were not allowed to stay there and then we came to BDY camp. I’m not really sure how old I was, but when I fled from the area where I lived, maybe I was 5 years old. I think maybe I was only two years old when I had to leave my village.
My father was already involved with the KNU because at that time like my father said, he was in jail because he was worried about my mother. At that time many soldiers came and he was worried. He came back and took us to a safe place but my mother said, “Don’t come because you will be caught and arrested,” but he came and he was arrested. And then he was released from the jail, prison, and the situation became worse again and he could not believe it and then we needed to move again.
When the Burmese military came to the village, they usually came and took materials. They asked for materials or porters, and when they wanted to eat they just took our cows and chickens and they would ask the village chief, “Do you have spies or not?” and then if they knew the Burmese military would destroy the house, like this. So we didn’t dare stay there anymore and we moved, and [it wasn’t just] our family; our relatives were also scared because of all that and many got threatened by many people like that and then they also moved the same way [we did]. Yes, they came and then they asked the porter, “You have to carry, if your husband is not at home then the wife has to go, like go and then come, and go and come, like this.”
It was like, if [Burma Army] soldiers attacked I needed to run and then come back and attend that standard again, and then I couldn’t finish [school]
From my childhood, I remember some parts. I saw soldiers—Karen soldiers—and they carried away the weapons or guns. I saw that. And then I also saw a checkpoint and many people came to our home and then they stayed in our home: like mostly soldiers, Karen soldiers. […] I saw many soldiers get injured. I know that and then they carried them away in hammocks, they tied them on the bamboo and then they put the man in and they carried them. I just thought: “Why do they carry them and then go back for the war, go back for the war, I did not know that. But I knew that many people prayed and they worshipped and they cried. And one of my uncles was a porter; he was lost for 6 months and everyone believed that he was already dead but he came back. And then his wife was happy and we were all happy when we saw our uncle come back. Yes, this one I still remember.
And then I attended school but the school was not until 5th standard, only 3rd standard or 2nd standard like this, and we had only one or two teachers. And for food, I also saw my father going to the jungle and collecting food, like wild animals and vegetables. For us also, sometimes we went to the jungle to collect, even though we were so young. But I know that we needed to run many times and then it affected my education. For example, when I attended standard one I couldn’t finish my standard one. It was like, if [Burma Army] soldiers attacked I needed to run and then come back and attend that standard again, and then I couldn’t finish.
We often needed to move from one place to another. Like this place wouldn’t be the same anymore and then we needed to move up a little bit and then we needed to find the area where there is water nearby and then we could collect food. And then if the soldiers came again we needed to move again, like this, many places. But it’s near Thailand as I remember, but the final one was in 1997 and then we needed to flee into Thailand. And everyone blocked us, they didn’t allow us to enter but we tried to enter because it wasn’t safe anymore in the part where we lived. But I also saw some food like rice.
They lost everything; their hopes, their dreams, their homes
Life in the jungle and on the run was often in flux. In addition to gathering food, some people also farmed. My uncle, he did farming, very far [away]—they grew cucumbers and rice on the mountain side. They did it but they needed to run many times, like this. If they hadn’t done that then we wouldn’t have had any rice to eat so we needed to do that.
When we lived in the jungle and moved from place to place, the houses we built were very simple, we built them from banana leaves and then we made them with bamboo. But sometimes when the rains came it was very difficult for us because some people they had roofs [made of] plastic and they could stay there but the ground was still wet. Also many insects would bite us. Many people got sick, got malaria. When I was a child I got malaria. And then I still remember there was a very small hospital there and they gave us a kind of medicine but after you drank it you felt very dizzy, yes.
If I [speak] honestly, the most difficult part about my life [was] at that time…I felt nothing because I just knew [how to] play and if I was happy then I was just satisfied by myself because I was a child. But as I’m here and as I’m an adult, I realize that I don’t want war. It affects all people and both sides of many, many sides. I don’t really like war; it affects other families, like our family. There were thousands of families and they had to suffer. And like education, or jobs in the camps: they didn’t have anything like that. They lost everything; their hopes, their dreams, their homes. They have nothing.
Like here, I also worry [about] one thing, we stayed in BDY camp for a long time and then I heard about the repatriation and I was a little bit scared. Not only me but the other ones as well because we have nothing left in our home and we have no idea where we will go and live.
In the beginning, to get to BDY they transported people in a large truck. At that time, they had a big truck and everyone came and many [people wanted to get in it] and we also got in, but our family didn’t go [all the way] with that car. It means we went to the small village in Thailand because we didn’t believe that truck and where they would go, we didn’t know. But our aunty, my mother’s oldest sister, she was in that truck and went to BDY first. And I didn’t know what kind of truck it was and then later my aunty contacted us with a letter and then we went to her.
We went there two times and then we went outside and came back, like this. I don’t remember when. We stayed there in a Thai village for one year and then later we went to BDY and then we went outside BDY because my father and mother said [that they] didn’t want to live in the BDY refugee camp. [They said] we should go outside and find jobs or something. But then we didn’t get any opportunity and we thought again [that] it’s better to stay in the refugee camp. So we came back in 2006 again.
We carried [everything], carried [everything] but then we couldn’t carry anymore
Mee Lay describes the initial journey to Nu Poe.
The first time was very funny, we needed to be afraid of the Burmese soldiers because the first time was in 2012 and then we had to be scared. At that time, they had the DKBA [Democratic Karen Buddhist Army] and the Burmese soldiers in Three Pagoda Pass and there was a check point and we had to avoid the checkpoint and then wait for a motorbike. We had to hire a driver and then come and send to the Me K’ Tha and then we came. We needed to be [really] careful and I was afraid and scared a lot. And then we came and during our journey they were mining. They were digging the rocks to sell. That was in the KNU area. We came and the road was not good and I was afraid when we came by car. Like if we saw a car [we would get in the car] and the car driver would say, “We will stop just here,” and we then we would need to get out of the car. Then we walked again, and then walked, walked, walked.
And then we saw many villages and we slept there, even though we didn’t know them but they welcomed us and we slept, they were very kind, I still remember. But the journey was very long and very hot. Sometimes I carried [everything] on my back and I brought everything, like soap powder, toothpaste. I was worried that when I got here I would not have anything to use and that we wouldn’t have food also. And we were worried about this; I came with my friend. We carried [everything], carried [everything] but then we couldn’t carry anymore so we would take a rest, go again and take a rest, like this. It took two days. I came with one of my friends; she also studies with me now. I knew where to go because that uncle—the one I talked about—he knew the way and then we asked him to come and [take] us here. He came with us and then he also knew many people in the KNU area, so we came.
I didn’t even know which school I’m was going to attend; I didn’t know anything. Then for the ration, in our camp we have rations right, and then here we get ration. We thought, were worried about many things but anyway, we wanted to attend the school. Then we came; we had to take a chance. When we arrived, we were lucky because we met with a teacher, and he had lived in BDY before he came here and then he introduced us to the schools. We have many post-10 schools here. He guided us to see which school is which and then we said, “OK, we like this school.” But, again we needed to do an exam, an entrance exam. We were worried again, like this. The first time when we arrived they said that we would not get the rations and that we had to contact our camp but actually it wasn’t true; we got the rations. We had to stay at another house for one month because we came in April and the school started in May. So we needed to stay outside, not at the dorm. We didn’t know them, just that uncle who came and took us. He knew the house owner and then he said that we would come and attend the school and that we would live here for a month. They welcomed us and then we stayed there. I finished ten standard and then I came here.
I needed to quit school and had to work
Mee Lay explained about education in the jungle as well as the immense challenges she faced to attain education.
They taught Burmese and they had two parts [in the village], a Burmese part and a Karen part because the village, the area was quite big. There needed to be two schools. The Karen are mostly Christian so they went to the church and there they learned their language from the Sunday school or something like that. But for the Burmese school—I attended Burmese school—we learned mathematics, Burmese language, and English language, but just the basics.
The schools were not connected to the government anymore. We were not connected with government when we stayed there. We stayed together, even though they taught Burmese because our teacher he was Burmese. But he also needed to run because of the effects, not only for the Karen people, but Burmese people also had to run so we stayed together there.
My sister attended school in Burma before we fled and she passed the 3rd standard. She should have been in the 4th standard, but the teachers there didn’t allow her to take the exams because my father was involved in the political party. So she didn’t have a chance to take the exam and go to school anymore. And then the teacher said, “Your father is from a rebel group so we’re not [going] to accept you in the school.” So she needed to quit and she didn’t attend school anymore.
In my village before we had to flee, we had Karen and Burmese people living together, and then the Burmese army came and we all had to flee. My brother and my sister didn’t go to school; they worked. For me, I studied. I studied but not Thai school. It was like a migrant school; I went there. And then later I needed to quit school and had to work. And I told my mother that I wanted to continue with my studies and then I came back to the camp. And then the whole family came back again. My father and brother came first.
When I was in 7th standard [in BDY] I had to stop school because my father and my mother couldn’t support me anymore and then my sister also got married and then my brother needed to work. It wasn’t enough to survive. And then my mother said you need to come and then work with us, like this.
I was 13 years old. And I remember that the first time that I worked was in a small shop, because no one accepted me. I was 13 years old; no factory accepted me and then I worked in a small shop and then maybe I got 60 baht or 80 baht, around this, for one day.
And then I told my mother: “No, I won’t stay like this; I want to continue my studies” and then I came to my aunty. I have three sisters.
The challenges? For me, I always find education not easy for me because many times I have to argue with leaders. Sometimes they were not fair; like I felt they were not fair and then I needed to talk with them and I needed to argue with them. For me, getting an education is difficult. [But,] I think that education is the only thing with which I can escape from the difficulties from here, to get a better life, so I focus on education.
Sometimes I ask myself, do I have a country?
My whole family is still in BDY camp. They are not registered with the UNHCR because they were registering in 2005 and we came in 2006, like this. They [parents] also said that it’s better to stay among our society and our people, [and that] even though we are poor we still have, like in a small place, we still have freedom. If we stay in a town or we have a job in another country, but we don’t have full rights, like citizens’ rights, we better come back and do something and to help our society; it’s better. We decided like this and then we came back [to the camp]. No, we have never been back to Burma. No, I have never seen my homeland or how it looks; I’ve never seen it.
My father is not involved with the KNU anymore. Since we fled he wasn’t involved anymore and still now he doesn’t dare to go back anymore. Even we said that now already we have had elections and something like that but he said no, he doesn’t believe anymore.
I want to go back because I [have] always dreamt about it. I want to stay in my own place and have the rights of a citizen, citizen rights, like this, because I stay in another country. I feel like it’s not fair to me. Then sometimes the payment is also not fair; I don’t want to stay like this. Sometimes I ask myself, do I have a country? Why do I need to stay like this? Yes, I want to go back. I arrived there [BDY] in 2006 and then in 2012 I left from BDY and then came here. So 2006 is six years there and then in Nu Poe four years.
I think I’m happy living in the camp more than living outside because I have a lot of friends and I have education and I love that. But one thing that’s very difficult for me is the language because we used to speak Burmese language. Even though my mother is Karen, when I went to school I cried every day because of the language. I didn’t understand [Karen] but I tried, and then later I could understand.
My family has not [been here in Nu Poe] because the journey is very bad; not easy to go because when I came here I needed to walk for two days on foot
We have a small shop and my father attended agriculture [training]. We have a small garden and we can plant there. Sometimes it’s extra and we sell it and then we get money and then we buy seeds again to plant more. We do it like this and then in the small shop we sell snacks and then yes, we [have relied] on that until now. They still have the shop.
In the summer holiday I attended vocational [training] and I like to cook, it’s my hobby and I really love that and then I wanted to learn how to make food and I went there and I loved it. And it’s not only children who attend; adults also attend and so they told many stories from their culture or in their society. For me I’ve never been back to Burma, I just heard what they said and how it looks like, or watching from the news or something like this. Yes, [they have] vocational training and basic computer training also. And cooking. Yes, they have a lot. They have hair dressing, sewing clothes, and mechanics. They fix motorbikes or cars. They also have DARE helping people who [used to] get drunk but then they went there and they stopped smoking or drinking. And some people [learn] how to massage and they teach [that] also. I think if we learn [intensely] like this for many months it’s useful for our life. I only took two [courses], cooking and computer. Because the others I didn’t like; I like only cooking and computer.
I have been back to BDY one year one time, two years one time, like this. My family has not [been here in Nu Poe] because the journey is very bad; not easy to go because when I came here I needed to walk for two days on foot and if we saw a motorbike they would carry us and [that’s how] we came. It’s not easy for them because they’re already old; it was not easy to come. Now there’s no need to walk anymore because we can ask some of our friends to send us back. At first we didn’t know anyone and we didn’t have any relatives so we needed to walk.
We just heard that here in Nu Poe we have education, better than in our camp and so I said “I would like to go and how can I go there?” And then one of my uncles was really kind and he saw that I really wanted to come here and then he sent us. We couldn’t give him anything but he still sent us.
For peace building, we gave awareness workshops [on how] to stay together in a peaceful society
During my studies, I learned many things and the school also taught me many things. At first I didn’t know how to communicate with people or speak. I didn’t have confidence in myself but when I attended school here I got more confidence and more motivation. And then I dared to say what I thought because I knew more [about] human rights. It wasn’t like how in the past I didn’t dare to tell my thoughts or my feelings or my ideas. Now I can say how I feel.
I see many ethnic groups here. Before that I’ve never seen different ethnic groups; I knew only Burmese and Karen. Here we have more: Kachin, Chin, and Kayah [Karenni]. I had never seen them before. We learned about their culture and their beliefs in the classroom and then sometimes we had debates. But I realized one thing: that debate is debate. Outside we’re friends; [we] just focus on our lives and learn many things, [how to] share and how to be flexible with people because we’re not alone. And I’m really thankful to my two teachers and my previous teacher taught me not only classroom lessons but outside [of the classroom as well], morals. I’m really happy and I would like to give them something back.
I was especially happy when we went to do the field trip [on] peace building, because this was the first time that I went back to my homeland. I met with many people and they were so happy. They were very happy when we arrived there, and I was also very happy that I saw things [that I had only ever seen] in the pictures that my parents [had from] the past. I was really happy, yes.
For peace building, we gave awareness workshops [on how] to stay together in a peaceful society. Before we went there we needed to prepare everything for translating our curriculum to teach them. We had to interpret and we had to practice. I needed to do monitoring and evaluating because we were project leaders so we needed to prepare and we had to contact many groups inside Burma before we went there to make sure of security. Then we taught them about reconciliation, conflict management, and leadership skills according to our assessment. Because we saw that we have a huge lack of people there to lead and to cooperate in society.
When we taught we were very happy because not only one village came; the neighboring villages also came and joined. They said that that was the first time that they were working together and attended the workshop together so we were also happy that we could do that.
Mee Lay’s story is based on an interview with Burma Link.