Burma Link | December 14, 2017
After fleeing persecution from the Burma Army in her native village, Naw Thein Nay found her way to Ei Thu Hta Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) Camp in 2007. There, she found safety and comfort, and has since then been able to build a new life for herself and the eight children in her care. Today a Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) Chairwoman in the camp, she stands as a leader in her community. As she strives to guarantee her own children the possibility to continue their education, Naw Thein Nay encourages the youth around her to study and improve their skills. Through weaving, she shares her knowledge to those around her in the hopes of helping them improve their lives and their capacity to stand for themselves. This interview with Naw Thein Nay was undertaken in October 2017, only days after the distribution of food aid had come to an end in the camp. As the struggle to survive becomes even more challenging for the camp inhabitants, Naw Thein Nay shares with us her thoughts regarding the peace process, the issue of return and the camp’s future without support from international actors.
Editor’s note: The interview was conducted in Ei Thu Hta camp in October 2017. The following has been edited and some parts have been re-ordered or omitted for clarity and flow.
“Ei Thu Hta is a place where we can recover our feelings from terrible sufferings”
My name is Naw Thein Nay. I take responsibility as a KWO chairwoman in Ei Thu Hta camp. I’m 36 years old.
In my [native] village the military planted landmines, then shot their guns and the bullets were flying everywhere. When I ran away from my village, I was 16 years old. I was single [unmarried] when I ran away from my village. I ran with my family. While we were in the forest, my brother struggled to get food for our family. At that time, we [also] didn’t have any medicine to cure my father’s serious disease. Thus, my father died in the forest at that time. Unfortunately, [my brother] was caught by the Burmese military, then killed. After my brother died, four years later his wife stepped on landmine. She became handicapped, then after four years the wound that she got from the landmine got worse and worse. Later on, she died.
Before I arrived in the [Ei Thu Hta] camp, I relocated to different places to escape from the Burmese military, and their dangerous bullets and landmines. As we ran to other places we had a problem of food, so sometimes I ate [only] rice soup. However, every place that I moved to, the Burmese military still arrived in. In the places that I relocated to, I couldn’t depend on the villagers because the villagers also had problems and were struggling for their [own] lives. Sometimes if I had a little money I could find people who would sell us food.
In 1996, I went to Mae Ra Moe [Mae Ra Ma Luang] [refugee] camp [in Thailand] and studied grade-6 there for one year. After that year I went back to [stay with] my mother because my mother was staying alone. It was a good time [for my age] to be studying, however, I couldn’t study because of the fighting happening in my area. And also, I wanted to look after and work for the family. If I had tried to find a way I might have been able to study but I didn’t study because I needed to support my family. As my brother and father had died, we faced many problems, so I didn’t have that opportunity. Instead, I struggled to survive. Then I got married. Until now I haven’t got enough [opportunity to] study and [get the education] I needed.
In 2007, I moved to the camp. The [KNU] leaders arranged a place for IDPs in Ei Thu Hta. Therefore, I moved to Ei Thu Hta to stay as an IDP person. I was really afraid, so I moved to the camp and have been able to settle in safely without any doubts, danger and worry for my life.
I moved here over 10 years ago because of the government military pressure and oppression, they set up their military camp around my village. Since I moved in Ei Thu Hta camp, I have felt more comfortable, like a warm feeling that cures our terrible suffering. Ei Thu Hta is a place where we can recover our feelings from terrible sufferings. It supports our education and provides rations for the resident people in the camp. However, starting this September the rations from the TBC [The Border Consortium] have been cut.
“If all the rations run out, all the elderly people will face difficulties worse than me”
Since 2014-2015, I have heard that the rations would be cut soon. Due to this, people have faced more problems for food and for their children’s education. In 2017, as the rations distribution was cut, it became a big problem for education because we couldn’t provide and run the education until grade-12 [anymore]. The reason is that the teachers who taught here struggled for their career, thus they couldn’t focus and devote themselves to their teachings. Then it became a challenge for the children to continue their studies. Parents don’t have money to support their children’s education in other places. Ever since the rations were cut, the camp leaders and many teachers have tried to find a new way for education, they have tried to run education until grade-12, but it has not been successful. Because of that we can only run [the school] until the middle school.
A second [major] problem concerns widows and disabled people. They have more problems because they can’t work and don’t know how to find a job easily. Thus, they can’t support their children to continue their studies in other places. They seriously worry for their livelihoods and also for the future.
After the ration was cut I have encountered many problems. I don’t have any other job. My family had a small land to do cultivation. But the place where I did small agriculture is close to the Burmese military [camp]. Thus, I don’t dare to go there anymore. Instead I just have a small space to grow agriculture that is close to the place where I live now. Moreover, I can weave so I earn money by weaving. It covers some of the family problems. It doesn’t cover all the problems, but it covers some. I share my weaving skills to young people, so they are able to weave, and can sell their weaving clothes and get income. I ask the youth to join and weave with me, then we get money. Because we don’t have any other work and any other skills.
Parents who have children who are [already] young people, are able to do agriculture or cultivation so it covers some of their problems, but not all. However, some elderly people can’t manage and work for their livelihood. Luckily, the rations distributed that we received still have some left, so they [elderly people] can still eat. I cannot imagine [what they will do] if this food is gone, I don’t know where they will get food from. They can’t even work, so I am really worried for them. There are many elderly people here. If all the rations run out, all the elderly people will face difficulties worse than me.
“I don’t want to go back because there is no security”
After the ration was cut, a few people returned to their original place but mostly people went to other places that they are not originally from. Because the military is still staying in their [original] villages.
I don’t want to go back because there is no security for the people yet and the landmines haven’t been all cleared yet. However, if there is a strong guarantee for the safety of all the people, I may return. Unless we have an arrangement for full and guaranteed safety, it is not easy to return. There is still the military staying in my area. If I return I fear that I will face terrible killings and dangerous situations, like I faced before.
I am not sure if other people have heard whether the KNU has any plans for us or not. But as for me, I have heard nothing about the KNU having a plan for us. People who [we know] worry about us are organizations such as the [Karen] CBOs [Community Based Organizations]. The Brigade-5 leader General Baw Kyaw Heh [also] visited us one time and he told us that [he understands] the people in Ei Thu Hta couldn’t leave and [he wouldn’t] let them starve.
KCBOs [Karen CBOs] visited us once. Then we attended their meeting and discussed with them. Later the KCBOs distributed a statement about people’s lives in here. They just came and took information, then they shared and spread the news to get some support.
“[A]fter the camp was set up for the IDPs, there have been no more killings here”
The people [from my home village] have stayed around the village, but not exactly in the village, because the military is still staying there and has set up their camp. I visited my hometown but not exactly in the village [itself], just around the place that is close to my village. The villagers stay outside and quite far from the village. Even though the villagers stay relatively far or around the village, they are still afraid and worried for their safety.
I have visited [my home village] two times [since leaving]. My very first visit was before the ceasefire process. At that time, the place where the military stayed was just a small [temporary] building. I could see the Burmese military huts because they stayed at the top of the mountain. But I stayed at the bottom of the mountain. My second visit was in December, 2016. I saw a lot of changes with the Burmese military buildings. There were no more huts. They had built [permanent] buildings. Their re-building was really nice. They had built the roof with zinc, they were strong and really nice buildings. I felt like I was afraid more than before.
[In Ei Thu Hta], I don’t feel like it is a truly safe place [either] because the Burmese military stays close to us, the distance is about one and half hours [on foot]. So, I can’t really say that this is [truly] a safe place. However, I feel warm when I stay here because this place is recognized as an IDP resident place. So, if the military wants to come and treat the people badly in here, the media and news will spread quickly. Since I have been here, the Burmese have never used force or treated us badly. Before Ei Thu Hta was recognized as an IDP place, the military killed people who came here to trade for their livelihood. But after the camp was set up for the IDPs, there have been no more killings here.
“[T]he international community thinks that Burma has achieved peace, but actually not”
As I am an uneducated person, I can’t reflect very deeply or effectively [on the peace process]. What I think, by looking at this peace process, the advantage is: we don’t need village leader’s recommendation letters to travel as in the past. Also, some of the village roads have been repaired. My opinion about the disadvantages are: the peace building process brings advantages for the government but not for the people. If there was no peace process maybe the donors would still support us because they would know there is no peace in Burma yet. So they would still continue supporting us. As the peace process in Burma is ongoing, the international community thinks that Burma has achieved peace, but actually not. The real peace that people need is not carried out yet. The government is doing this peace process just to bring benefits and advantages for themselves.
As I have not studied and I don’t have a high education level, I can’t describe this well. However, as I have heard from others, the policies that the government is running now are not really related with bringing peace in Burma. If the government changes its policies in order to bring advantages to the ethnic people, build friendships with foreign countries and rule our country as foreign countries do, we may be able to say there is real peace in Burma. In addition, as I am a Karen person, if there is no oppression and pressure from the military, we can stay peacefully. I can’t explain in a very professional way, but I can explain through my own experiences and what I have heard.
I expect to see these conditions before returning: peace building process should be successfully implemented, the political problems of armed conflicts are totally solved, the safety for the people is fully guaranteed and the landmines need to be all cleared. If all these problems are solved, I dare to go back to my hometown.
“The money that I earned, I will give to my children”
I don’t have any plan and special idea on how to get rice and food, especially for all the people here. Even for my family I can’t guarantee to get enough rice and food. The only thing that I can do is to share and speak out for them and share the problems that we have encountered.
Currently, in my storage [I still have] a pack of rice left that was distributed [before]. It has 50 kg in the pack. I have 10 family members and all of my children are studying in other places but now two children are visiting me because they have a short [school] break. I have three children, and I look after my brother’s three children, and I adopted two [other] children who are not my relatives, but they are orphans. Therefore, I have eight children. Their [adopted children’s] age is about 17 and 19. My own children are 12, 15, 17 years old.
By the grace of God all of them have an opportunity to study well. Last summer break, a foreigner gave a training here, my children were active but couldn’t communicate with the foreigner as they didn’t understand or speak English well. One of the teachers told me that it is better to support my children to continue their studies because they couldn’t really communicate with the foreigner. Then he [teacher from Thoo Mweh Khee migrant school] told me that he would find a way for my children to continue their studies. But later [it turned out] he couldn’t help at all, so it became a heavy load to support my children’s education.
It is by the grace of God they still have an opportunity to continue their studies. They don’t have money to buy nice clothes to wear and no pocket money to buy snacks. However, I appreciate that they have the opportunity to continue their studies and live in the dormitory.
I try to weave until midnight. I don’t even have enough sleep. The money that I get by weaving, I don’t even spend it on myself, I just send all the money to my children. I get some support from one teacher who is a former student from Thoo Mweh Khee. He tried to find [school fees] for my children and he got 20,000 baht [US$ 600] for four of my children. Anyway, 20,000 baht is not enough for the dormitory fee, the school fee and the uniform fee. For this year I don’t have to worry for the financial problems, however, the next coming year it will be a problem, thus I don’t know and don’t have any idea what to do yet.
I can contact them [children] by phone. There is a phone outside of the camp. My children don’t have phones, but they call me with their friends’ phones. We usually contact each other in important cases and if they need something they phone me. It depends on the situation and the necessity. We don’t call each other very often because it also costs money. My children phoned me a few days ago and they asked for money [for their school], 1,000 baht [US$ 30]. Last night I wove until 12 am. The money that I earned, I will give to my children.
“As I am a leader, people depend on and take inspiration from me”
I learned weaving from my mother and also from my friends. I started to learn weaving when I was at the age of 10. But [already] when I was 12 years old I could weave very well. At that time, I had the same weaving materials that I [still] have now.
In my opinion, men and women have different abilities to do different jobs. I don’t have any other special ideas about men’s skills. However, most of the people here depend on and count on their leaders for everything. As I am a leader, I gather women and children, then I share weaving skills to them. I have weaving skills, so I try to teach them to weave in order to get income and survive. Most of the women here can weave. But the younger people, we started teaching them only now. So they can weave, but not very well [yet]. As I am a leader, the people depend on and take inspiration from me. So in order to solve the problems [we face], I share this skill. It helps and covers for some problems but not all.
The KWO have spoken to us in order to get help from others. Currently, they are helping us to find a functional way to sell the clothes we weave. I bring the clothes with me to Mae Sot, then if some of the KWO members buy them, I will get some money. Unless they buy my clothes, I won’t be able get money from anywhere and can’t give money to my children. Every time, I give them 10 or 20 shirts to sell but I don’t get the money at the same time. I have to wait for it, even if it is not too long. After they have sold my clothes they send the money back to me, and then I share it back to everybody who was weaving.
“If the Burmese military won’t return to their place, I don’t dare to return to my village”
Everything that I am sharing is all about my own experience and what I have faced. I have faced many difficulties but some of them I don’t want to talk about. What made me really sad was, when the fighting happened in my village, my brother went to the forest to find food. His wife was sick at home, and his three children didn’t have food to eat. Thus, his three children visited their relatives and asked for food. They just got two or three cups [of rice]. It really hurt my feelings. I can’t really forget it easily. It [this memory] always reminds me to help this kind of people.
I would like to help other people to study and share their education from generation to generation. If I didn’t have any financial problems, I would gather them and share my knowledge with them [and help them to] study. Ever since being a human, I have known no peace. Since moving here, I have felt better about my safety. In the past, I faced danger, sadness and awful killings. What [holds me back] the most, is my lack of education. I was unable to get education. As I have encountered many difficulties in my life and a lack of education, I don’t want others to face [the same as] me. So, I want to help disabled people, orphans and widows. Even though I love helping them, I can’t help them right now. My family also has financial problems.
My relatives [and I] don’t want to return because they feel bad feelings [pain]. We can still feel this [pain] in our [hearts] and can’t forget it easily. If the Burmese military won’t return to their place, I don’t dare to return to my village yet. If a real process is successfully made, I want to return to my hometown and stay there peacefully. My children would share their education and their skills to new generations. At that time, I might not be able to do anything because I will be old. But my children will be able to promote the new generation’s education and skills. In order to stay peacefully, our country must have real peace and freedom.
“I would love the world to check the situation of Burma’s peace process in detail, and think deeply whether it is a real peace process or not”
Even if the government and ethnic groups are in a peace building process, it doesn’t give any satisfaction or any full guarantee of sustainable development allowing us to return to our homeland. Due to this, we don’t dare to go back to our homeland. In the current situation, we don’t want to return to our homeland, but if a real peace building process is made we are sure that we will return. I would like the world to continue supporting the refugee/IDP people, please don’t stop supporting our refugee/IDP people. I would love the world to check the situation of Burma’s peace process in detail, and think deeply whether it is a real peace process or not. It is not the right time to return yet. Please keep supporting our refugee/IDP people as you have supported us before, providing food, healthcare and education.
We, the Karen people, can survive by eating rice. We can’t only depend to get the support from the donor,s we ourselves have to struggle by ourselves in order to solve our life problems and stand up by ourselves. The first thing I would like to say to the international is: this is not the right time to return yet, please don’t stop to support the refugee/IDP people.