Burma Link | January 27, 2017
A positive and passionate ethnic Mon youth, 21-year-old Tao always seems to have a smile on his face. It was no easy task, however, to arrive at where he is now. Tao was born to a family of soldiers in Mon State, southeast Burma. Although he grew up knowing both Mon and English, Tao felt discriminated against due to language difficulties; the school was a Government school and all teaching was in Burmese, a language that he barely knew a few words of. Motivated by his childhood experiences and concerns about lack of Mon language teaching, determined Tao went on to set up a summer school for children to learn their native language and literature. He is now training with the Mon National Education Committee (MNEC), the education department of the New Mon State Party (NMPS), to become a teacher. Tao has worked hard to where he is today, and it has been no easy ride with turns such as a highly dangerous broker-arranged journey to Thailand. This dedicated young man now hopes to use his education to teach in remote areas where he is most needed.
Attending school in a foreign language: “My life was so hard, because everybody was speaking Burmese”
I was born in a village and I attended Mon [nursery] school. I couldn’t speak Burmese and I was at the Mon school for about two years. My parents are [New Mon State Party – NMSP] soldiers and they had to set out to the city; that’s their duty. Yeah, I lived with my mother; the best mother, who cares, and my father was in NMSP HQ and he had to go to everywhere because he was a soldier.
The village [ Kwan Hlar ] it’s not a really small village but it has about 500 houses and mostly people are Mon. Most people there they open a shop and they are mostly shopkeepers and some of them have rubber plants. And they do it in their garden. Those are the two main jobs there in that village. The schools are just only Burmese schools.
When I was six I was [sent] in Kwan Hlar […] and I attended school there. At that time I was about six and I could not speak Burmese well at school and my life was so hard, because everybody was speaking Burmese and I just spoke Mon and some English and couldn’t understand. I lived with my uncle, not with my parents; they were in Moulmein at that time. I lived with other people and I grew up there with them.
I was so young and I couldn’t understand; our Mon language and their language were not the same. And Burmese people couldn’t understand what I was saying and when I talked to them they were just teasing me about my words and my speaking [Mon] was not the same as them. I had a few friends at that time and I met a few friends and they were nice. For the others, I felt always being bullied by them. I didn’t have any friends in my grade and in class I had low grades–because I didn’t speak Burmese and in the exam and I didn’t know what the exam was for, I didn’t know what an exam was. Every time the teacher would say to me, “Can you write this? Can you solve this problem for the math?” I just didn’t know anything.
They [teachers] get extra money from tuition and then if you attend their tuition they give you little clues, like what they will assess you in the exam, so you can pass the exam easily if you attend [tuition]. For me I was really stubborn. I didn’t attend the tuition from the teachers and a result I always had low grades. English subject wasn’t really difficult and I did really well but for the other major I could not get any points.
When I was twelve I met up with my grandparents again in Moulmein and after a year in Moulmein, I started my education there.
Inter-ethnic relations: “They needed to understand each other”
[My parents and my uncle] they really loved their nation so they decided to dedicate everything to NMSP and they went against the Burmese and to start a revolution against the Burmese [Government]. After 88, they wanted to go to the NMSP because their lives were so hard and they hated the Burmese soldiers, yeah they completely hated the Burmese and they didn’t want to speak Burmese.
I feel like when I went to the school and I didn’t speak Burmese and they [Burman students] teased me, at the time I hated them too. I hated them. Because these people were so rude and after I moved to Moulmein, then in Moulmein I communicated with a lot of people in the city, and I saw a lot of ethnic people like Karen, Muslims and other ethnic people —- and I felt humility. They needed to understand each other.
[Now] my mom has changed. She communicates with people well because she has to work with the people in the community and also she had to work with all stakeholders, so she tries. She sees other people, other patients, because she is a medic.
Despite his own initial prejudice and coming from a family of soldiers, Tao never wanted to become one himself.
I was not interested in killing people, and like war, but it would have been okay for a while and as a duty it’s fine, but I didn’t want to be a soldier for all my life. Because I am not interested in that. I am interested in languages, and photography and culture, and science, so I studied those things. I didn’t want to become a soldier, so my parents didn’t force me to do that.
D-day: “I asked, ‘Do we need to leave, mom?’”
In 2008, we had a D-day and a lot of NMSP members from families were soldiers and [they thought] Burmese [army] will attack on that day, so a lot of people were leaving. A lot of NMSP people left and moved to the NMSP control areas which is black area. A lot of people were afraid, because we don’t have a lot of army to protect them, so a lot of people moved to the NMSP control areas. [But] we didn’t leave.
We call it D-day. On that day, [we thought] the Burmese soldiers, they [would] attack the NMSP and our Mon people, Mon soldiers would have a big war again, so our Mon soldiers were not prepared and they didn’t have a lot of soldiers around, so they left to Thailand or somewhere, and some people went to the USA and some people went all around the world. [But] it didn’t happen at all.
[At the time], I asked, “Do we need to leave, mom?” “No we don’t need to leave because ah I am not part of NMSP at all .. nobody knows we are NMSP members.” Because at the time we lived there no one called us soldiers–they just called my family as a medic because my mom, she cured people there, so they didn’t want her to leave either. They would have protected us for that. They would say that we are not NMSP members, and we’re just medics.
Biggest challenge yet: “A lot of people were shouting because we didn’t have enough air to breathe in that car”
When Tao was on grade 10, his father became seriously ill, changing the course of the young man’s life path.
[It was] something that happened suddenly. When he was sick, he was not really well for a month, and we spent a lot of money for him, a lot of Burmese money, from us, it was almost gone, because he had cancer. He got cancer and it was really bad, so we had to cure him and we had to go to Rangoon hospital and we had to treat him a lot. We spent a lot of money for him. So we just left a house and a garden and our farm, so it was a really bad time for us.
The biggest one [challenge] did not really happen until my father died. At the time I was on 10th standard and before I studied for the exam my father passed away so it was… very difficult for me to finish my education and I felt down and like I must leave school, and I didn’t think that I would pass the 10th standard. So yeah I felt worse. At the time I thought, “I cannot pass this.” It was a really hard time for me and my father was not there with us anymore and I needed to think about money. I felt something about money in my mind, and so I went to Thailand.
Tao paid a broker to take him to Thailand, and started the dangerous journey along with other Mon as well as Burman, Karen, and Muslim civilians, to Thailand.
First time [I went] to Thailand was really exciting and really dangerous for me. Because I got a passport but it was a fake, and I didn’t know anything about that. I slept in Japanese Well for a night, and I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any friends, but I made friends with other people who were going to the same place. We had to sleep on the road for two nights, in the rain, and it was always so rainy at night. During the day we could not go [anywhere], because of all the police. So we slept in the heat in a rubber tree garden for two nights. After that when we went in to Bangkok, they arranged and let us sleep in the back of the car, and they covered it with a net and afterwards, they put a lot of loads on us. And we could not breathe at all. Some people cannot remember anything about it and some people were nearly died.
After that when we went to Bangkok, we arrived to a place — I don’t know what it’s called, because they didn’t even tell us where it is. After that, they put people in a small car, like thirty people; it was really, really difficult to stay there. You cannot stand up, you cannot move around and the car had really low air, and the air conditioner sometimes the driver didn’t open it. We had a Thai driver and at the time we could not speak the Thai language so he became angry and he closed the air conditioner so a lot of people were shouting because we didn’t have enough air to breathe in that car. At that time one person was nearly dead when we arrived after [about five hours].
[The journey took about a week] and after that we could not eat, because we didn’t have anything to eat for a day and then they sent me to a place where… they were Mon and fortunately I am Mon so they sent me to what they call a Bangadi temple in Bangkok where my teacher Monk lived. So I went to stay with him for a while and then I got a Thai ID card and I started to work with my sister and uncle.
Life as a migrant worker: “Mostly young adults have to go to Thailand and work there”
I lived with my sister for three months and at the time I sold ice cream and cakes, traditional cakes, and I moved to Bangkok and I started to work in a plastic factory. That’s where I worked when I met with a Chinese boss; she’s a woman and she asked me if I can speak English and [I said], “Yes I can speak English.” “Then go and lift up load.” “Wow ok,” [I thought]. I was afraid, and I did that for a week but it was really hard for me and it was just one person who lifted up the load all day and went around with a car. I said to her, “Can you give me another job?” And she said no, so I said I wanted another job again. Then I left and I lived with my brother; my brothers and my sisters were there in Thailand. So after that I went back to Burma, and back to school.
[Before coming to Thailand] I could speak a little bit of Thai language, just some words. I didn’t really know much but like our parents say, “Thailand is really bad, they hate [our] people there, and they [our people] are slaves” so I just knew a little bit about that. I didn’t really know a lot. But when I came to the country it was really different than what they were saying; some Thai people are really good and kind to us, but some of them are really not like that.
Mostly migrant workers get a problem with corruption, they have corruption between Thai businessman and them. Like for us, I went to work and I had to work from 8 to 6, but sometimes they didn’t let us out at the time. And I wondered at the time they had to pay us, but they didn’t give us the money. And then after a month they gave it. So sometimes we didn’t have a lot of money that we could send back to our families, and sometimes for us to eat…like for me, every day [I ate] noodles because they’re easy to get, easy to buy.
Tao stayed in Thailand for about one year and 6 months.
Mostly young adults have to go to Thailand and work there, and mostly when they come back from Thailand, they just think Thailand is their home and they cannot get a job here in Burma so they just kept going back to Thailand and work there for their whole life.
Higher education in Burma: “Even when we graduate from a university we don’t know what we studied”
Before I went to Thailand I didn’t know the result of 10th standard exam yet, whether I passed or not. When I arrived there [in Bangkok], my friends found me and they said, “You passed.” I was, “Ok, I will go back to university but I don’t know where.”
I applied for university when I came back. And I applied [for] Botany [at] Moulmein University [but] we don’t have any choice in Burma because they just choose our major. So like for me, with Botany, they just gave us whatever they wanted. No one can choose anything. It is bad too for us because sometimes we cannot get anything that we want.
Although we are attending a university, we don’t get good teachers. The university teacher, they just write down the words and they don’t look back. They explain something for thirty minutes and say “Copy it down!” and “Do you understand? Do you understand?” In Burma it [biggest problem with education] is the teaching technique. It’s a big problem. Because they’re teaching like, the student copies and the class is finished, and the teacher shouts out words and the student replies, and they follow the teacher’s voice and that’s the class. And they don’t even think about the lesson. They don’t even know what teacher is talking about so they have to read by heart. So that’s not really good for them. That’s the bigger problem that we have.
So they should change the teaching techniques and the common curriculum, because with some books and some curriculum they don’t finish, they just focus on the exam and what they will assess. So they don’t teach the book completely and they don’t really apply the knowledge. If you have a semester, you have to read three chapters and then second semester six chapters. [It’s] finished and we don’t know anything about it. Even when we graduate from a university we don’t know what we studied. We just have a photo and we have a certificate, but we don’t know what our major is about.
In 2014, after the first year [at university] I attended a training–English training–and then in 2014 I met with MNEC friends, old friends who had become teachers. I asked them about MNEC and I asked them about this program and also that I wanted to come here [to the border] and become a teacher. I wanted to help our nation and [I thought] I will finish my university later.
Preserving Mon culture and language: “We had to persuade them because some parents don’t like Mon [language]”
[For teaching] Burma’s history, teachers teach about the king, all the kings and the stone script letters. They teach that for the [national] history and for the world history they teach about the famous kings in the world, and writers like Shakespeare and Socrates and about everything that they did and how they became famous in the world. For ethnic history…no. I didn’t see anything.
Around my village in Moulmein, the villagers around there cannot speak or write Mon and I think it is getting worse. Because when I arrived there most people spoke more but after that it became worse and most people speak Burmese. I communicated with monks at the monastery and then when I graduated I worked on [setting up] a summer course.
A lot of Mon Literacy has become low and I thought now in Mon State our language will disappear. In 2006 I started and I became a teacher for a Mon summer course and I taught the Mon language for three months. Every year [I taught] for a while and in 2013 I went to the school again and taught them Mon language and Mon history and Mon grammar. I wanted to do that because I was born in a village that doesn’t have Mon literacy and all my life I faced with a lot of people who are not Mon or hate the Mon. I saw a lot of Mon people who cannot speak Mon or they can speak but they cannot write, so I wanted them to improve in Mon.
A lot of children are homeless and a lot of children in Mon state cannot write and read right now. They can speak Burmese, but they cannot write it. So in my opinion this program [Bop Htaw Education Empowerment Program] is really good for Mon people and it has helped, because a lot of Mon people from Government schools have chance to attend there. If they can speak Mon and they write a little bit of Mon and they can speak English. It is really good.
Both of my parents encouraged me to do that [start the summer school] for the people, for the children. So we formed the summer school and every year I taught there for three months for them. Now after I came here [to Sangkhlaburi] a lot of young people go to Thailand, so we cannot get the youth to cooperate and to persuade the young children. We had to go around the villages and go to house by house to ask the parents and persuade the parents to let the children attend a school like that in their free time for three months. We had to persuade them because some parents don’t like Mon at all; although they are Mon they don’t like to write in Mon and they think Burmese is really important for them and that Mon is nothing. Many parents are like that.
Becoming a teacher: “After this program, for me, I want to go … where other teachers don’t want to go”
Tao is now training with the MNEC to become a teacher.
We become teachers and then we have to serve [Mon schools] as teachers for two years and then after two years you can go wherever you want. It’s been really great but we’ve had some difficulty with the money this year, with our budget. [Nevertheless] this year we learned a lot about teaching and we learned and we got a lot of training too, like about health education and organizational management, about office work and computers. So it is really good.
After this program, we become teachers, and we go around the villages and help others with their education and have little salaries. So it is a really good program for the Mon people to improve because of that. But in my opinion the bad thing is that the old teachers in the villages, they don’t like the new techniques we use here. The old people, the old teachers they don’t like a lot of activities with children, but they like the repeating. Children repeat a lot. That’s not really good for them.
After this program, for me, I want to go to a village where they really need a teacher; they really need education, and where other teachers don’t want to go. Mostly teachers don’t want to go really far from their hometown or if communication is not good–they don’t want to go to a place like that. So I want to go to a place where they really need people. I don’t want to stay in the MNEC office, because they have enough teachers. A village that really needs the teachers is where I want to go to.
If you want to change education, you need to teach children, young grade first. You have to change from the basics, you have to, so I want to teach first graders or second graders so that they get strong confidence, strong education, and strong technique, and they know how to do afterwards. So I want to teach young children first, because that’s really good for them to change their education.
I don’t need anything. I don’t need to bring my computer, I don’t [need to] bring any camera, I don’t need anything like that at all. It’s ok for me, I will stay [anywhere] for their needs.
Visiting childhood village: “We had to climb a mountain and I didn’t know where to go”
In my village, most kids go to school but when they are thirteen or fifteen they leave the school. Because of the situation, their family can’t support them and they have to work. Most Mon people are like that.
Last year I went back. I lived there since I was a baby and when I was six I left. And I never went back. Because of my parents, they never allowed me to go back. And my father went back sometimes for his job, and [I said], “father, I want to go too.” “No you can’t.” But I’ve never been, I never visited. So last year I said, “Mom, I really want to go back for a time. I want to see what is happening and what has changed. I want to see the changes there.” So, “OK,” she said, “if you want you can because you are not young now.”
So, I went back to the village for the first time and I couldn’t remember the way. When we went back out there we had to climb mountains and I didn’t know where to go, I just knew about the place when I was young. So then I climbed up the mountain and I thought, “Oh, it is really far now.” When I looked back the bridge was left behind me. So I had to cross the water again. I didn’t really remember how to go to my old house again. I asked the villagers and mostly they didn’t remember me and some of them, when I spoke to them they said, “Oh you are back, you changed a lot,” and I said “Yeah, I don’t even remember you.” And my friends were so happy that I came back again. Some of them are really educated and they became teachers, and it was really happy times when I came back and I went to the old house.
It’s changed. When I was young we had no electricity or solar system and now they have a solar system. When I was young there were only two televisions in our village. If you wanted to watch television or movies or anything, you had to go there [to those houses]. Like a cinema. And now it changed and a lot of people can get the television, and they can use computers. Now they have a telephone and they can communicate. The hospital still has not changed. The hospital has not changed and it is broken. Now they can get electricity from the water, from the water generator. Last year they built a new school. And for the roads, the houses, they changed. The houses have a ceiling, and a basement.
Learning English through self-study: “I practiced a lot with my friends”
I liked English since the 3rd standard. I could not understand Burmese very well, but I could recognize every English word [in class]. So at the time, I believed in myself that I could speak English.
[Since 2011], I started to learn English, for one month in a monastery, and I used to attend trainings for English, just two times. I learned from the internet and I learned by heart, I learned everything. Every word that I see in English I try to recognize them, learn and I use dictionary, I use the dictionary a lot. [Now] I don’t feel shy. But first time it was really really bad for me because when I spoke I felt not really comfortable to speak. And then I met with a teacher from MNEC who spoke really well and she encouraged me to speak in front of other people. And also in movies, I always watched movies and I felt like it was my language sometimes. I understood everything that they said at the time but I could not speak. After that I attended the training and I practiced a lot with my friends [I could speak]. [Now] I know Thai, English, Chinese a little bit, and Mon and Burmese.
But for me I like writing, I like writing the most. So I wrote a lot of poems and newsletters and essays. I usually write about life. And people who are starving and like that. And I usually write about philosophy, people’s minds, and I usually think about people and sometimes like love, [I write] poems like that.
Tao is also interested in photography.
I like nature, nature photos, plants, flowers photos and the sky, and like every people, they are in a photo and their face become hard and they don’t smile. I want to take a photo when they are really happy and they don’t even know that I am taking a photo of them. So I like the natural smiles like that, when people are really smiling, real happiness.
For Mon people, I want to see them working with the other ethnicities. I want to see them working together for the country and have good communication, share opinions. I want to see them working together peacefully.
Click here to download a joint report by Burma Link, Human Rights Foundation of Monland, and Burma Partnership, and read more about the Mon armed struggle and IDPs (internally displaced persons) in English | in Burmese.