‘We Have Always Been Running’: Why a Young Karen Woman Chose to Become a Soldier

/, Stories, Voices/‘We Have Always Been Running’: Why a Young Karen Woman Chose to Become a Soldier

Burma Link | October 5, 2015

Naw Mu Gay, 22, wanted to join the Karen army since a young age. Coming from a large family, Naw Mu Gay’s father found it hard to provide for everyone, having to work on a farm in order to exchange betel nut leaves for rice that was barely enough to feed his family. Attending a school far away from her village, Naw Mu Gay and her siblings had to live with their grandmother in Taungoo, seeing their parents only once a year during the school break. To help the family once her father fell ill, Naw Mu Gay had to drop out of school to work on a farm in the village. She and her family lived in constant fear of the Burma Army, often having to run to the jungle where the family would live in a broken tent, cooking only at night time when the smoke would not lead Burmese soldiers to their hideout. Naw Mu Gay grew up seeing her parents suffer amidst the conflict, and continuously having to run for their lives. This year, finally given the opportunity, Naw Mu Gay decided to join the KNDO (Karen National Defense Organisation), and says that she will rely on her fellow comrades to get through the difficult times that lay ahead.


We did not have enough food

Since we were young, we had many siblings, we did not have enough food. So, our father picked betel nut leaves, and went to exchange them for rice in another village. In the other village, they didn’t have betel nut leaves, and as they liked betel nut they had to exchange it for rice. It was enough for one week.

Naw Mu Gay’s family is now separated between attending school and working on a farm. Her father has fallen ill which meant Naw Mu Gay and her brother had to drop out of school in order to provide for the family.

I attended school until the eighth grade. I then had to leave school because my father was sick. I had to go to school in another village, because we didn’t have a school in our village. It was very far. We had to go and stay at our grandmother’s house. We traveled for one day, we stayed there for the whole year and when the school closed I came and stayed with my father on the hill.

When we were schooling, our father was still healthy. So, he still lived in the hill, he didn’t live in Taungoo. There was only my grandmother in Taungoo. [The farm] it is not in Taungoo, but close to Taungoo. As [our] grandmother lives there, [our] father sent us there. My father was healthy at that time, so he worked in the hill.




I had to be afraid of everyone

For eight years I attended school. I then had to leave because my father was sick, [so] he moved to Taungoo, and I moved to the hill. I left [school] together with my brother. I helped him growing ‘Phalar’ [and] cutting betel nut. My brother [then] worked as a soldier, so there was only me. As a girl, I did not dare to live alone, so my father came and stayed with me, even though he was unhealthy.

There was no clinic [in the village]. If the condition was worrying, we had to go to Baw Ga Li town. There was only a motorbike way. [But] motorbike cannot go in the rainy season. In the rainy season, we had to carry the patient. There was I big stream. We had to cross the river to go to the clinic. It takes about one day to go the clinic there. […] People who couldn’t afford they couldn’t send, and they just ended their lives there in the village.

My mother, she stayed in Taungoo with my brother and a younger brother. The situation was very bad in the hill [farm] with the Burmese soldiers. The people who lived in the hill moved to Taungoo. [My] mother went and lived with the children [in Taungoo], my father, he came and stayed with me. […] I did not dare to live alone. I had to be afraid. I had to be afraid of everyone.


Burmese soldiers came and shot at us

In 1993 when Naw Mu Gay’s village was burnt by the Burmese military, much of the population had to move to Taungoo, the closest town one day walk away. Since then, the village has been rebuilt, and people have moved back to work at their farms, although ever since the attack from the Burmese military, the people have had to live in fear.

In 1993 when I was born, the Burma military came and burnt our village. There was no village. The village was destroyed. Some wanted to return to their village, but they did not dare to live [there]. As for some people, they were afraid to come back. There were land mines.

We heard from another village about an hour [away], when they were playing football, they [the Burmese military] came and shot at them. At that time some people died. Not many people injured, but dead. Around that time I was growing rice. While we were growing rice, the Burmese soldiers came and shot at us. But, no one was shot, and we escaped. [We] had to leave the things and run. Sometimes, there were deaths.

When we came back [from grandma’s house] in the summer holidays we had to run. Burma soldiers came, and the Burma military attacked. We had to run. Sometimes when we ran, our father was not with us. Our father had gone to work. That’s why as we [were] left in the house, we did not know what to do. Mother also, sometimes [was] not with us. At that time, I’d also grown up a little bit; therefore when I came back I had to look after the children. Then my parents left me. Even I did not dare to live alone, I had to. Sometimes when I heard the gun sound I did not [know] what to do. I had that kind of dangerous times.

As a girl, I did not dare to live alone, [I was] too afraid, I had to be afraid of everyone. When father came back we had to pack our things and run. I did not know where to run, there was nowhere to run.


We knew only that the Burmese military were coming

Naw Mu Gay and her family spent two or three years running from the Burmese army, hiding in the jungle, too afraid to even cook at times.

The Burma military came and attacked. We didn’t know exactly who attacked. We knew only that the Burmese military were coming. We just knew that.

We had to cover the old and broken tent and live there. Sometimes, we did not dare to cook. When we [would] cook the smoke [would] come out. Even at nighttime, we were afraid the light would come out. There were times we had to cover the whole place with blankets and [then] cook.

Naw Mu Gay says it has been about five years since her family has had to run away from the village. A preliminary ceasefire was signed between the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burma Government in January 2012. This year, finally given the opportunity, at the age of twenty-two Naw Mu Gay decided to join the army.


Since I was a child my parents suffered the military fights

Everyone joined the army. But as for me, I joined the army because I wanted to. Since I was a child I wanted to join. I hate [the Burmese army]. Since I was a child my parents suffered the military fights. I hate [it]. Therefore, I wanted to join the army. I had to help my parents. Just this year, I joined the army.

When I lived in the house [in the hill], I knew nothing. It was strange, the outside world. When I joined the army, there were boy soldiers there also. They help [with] what I cannot do. As for the girls, they teach each other what others don’t know. I teach them what they don’t know.

[My] friends don’t know [that I am a soldier], but parents allowed me. It’s working for the country, therefore they support me. But they always remind me to take care. As a girl, there are many dangers.

[But] because of the leaders’ encouragements and inspirations, I really feel stronger. Even I am nothing, I am happy to be involved as a piece of sand and a piece of break (Burmese expression) for our people.

There may also be many difficulties. We have to overcome any difficulties. But, you will always have friends wherever you are. If you are good, your friends will also be good. I also just have a lot of friends when I arrived here. We have to overcome what we have to.


There are no parents [here], only friends look after each other

 Naw Mu Gay had been through so much trauma that her first experiences as a soldier weren’t initially about overcoming the fear of being a soldier, but the fear of being around other people her age.

 As I live together with many people I started to speak, before I did not speak a lot. There were times I didn’t dare to eat. But, if I don’t eat, I am hungry. So, I ate even with many people.

 I became to speak only when I arrived here. There are many girl soldiers. Therefore, I also feel stronger. When I was in the village, I didn’t have friends. I lived alone. When I [first] arrived here, friends […] they encouraged me. If I’m sick at home, my parents look after me. But, there are no parents [here], only friends look after each other.

Naw Mu Gay says she will continue to be a soldier. Although she is afraid she sees her role as a soldier a duty to her country, and she has no regrets.

As I joined this work, I have to keep my mind strong. I am afraid, but since I joined, I have to put that fear behind [me].

I don’t have regrets. I am happy. […] There will be difficulties. I will try the best. There are also many girl soldiers. We are like brothers and sisters.

Naw Mu Gay’s story is based on an interview with Burma Link.

2017-08-18T17:27:43+00:00 October 5th, 2015|Editor's Picks, Stories, Voices|