For the past five years, I’ve attempted to keep up my reading and research of Burma. Each book has presented a different aspect of the same conflict: the victim of a targeted ethnic minority, the Western researcher that has given her life to historical research, the victim of socialist policies, the Westerner who lives among the people and writes of his quest for democracy, the Westerner who lives among the people and writes of his quest for Christianity, the victim who has resettled and begun a new life; the list goes on.
I find it most challenging when people ask which book they should read about Burma. Each book creates a more balanced, more holistic view of the situation–of every ethnic group, of every party, of every religion, of every army.
And it is the valiant effort at a balanced portrait of Burma that I loved most about my most recent read. I just finished Nowhere to be Home, part of the Voice of Witness project. I had seen it was in the making about a year ago, and I’ve been watching their website since. It finally came out, and I immediately paid the money to have it shipped here to Mae Sot.
Voice of Witness writes their books using oral histories, interviews, and stories to document social justice issues. They work for years to gather multiple interviews, various perspectives, and to go through the process of translations, editing, etc. This particular volume about Burma includes personal accounts from Karen, Burman, Shan, Kachin, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Karenni, and Rohingyan. It includes stories of former SPDC soldiers, victims of trafficking, political prisoners, resettled refugees, migrant workers, and more. It has stories of all ages, with perspectives from Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and the US.
And it captured me.
So much, really, that I’m passing it on.
I wanted to include a few excerpts, too, from my favorite narrative. Toward the end of the book, Law Eh Soe, a Karen refugee that has been resettled to New York, was interviewed. As I read his account of being a photojournalist in the ’88 Uprising and his photos from the 2007 Saffron Revolution being broadcasted around the world, I was reminded of everything that has captured me about the Karen. His story said it all: an oppressed, struggling people that somehow seem more defined by their optimism and generosity.
I know, this is quite a bit to call it an “excerpt”–but it was all I could do to not type out the entire chapter for you, and even that was more to avoid copyright infringement than to avoid the typing.
“I loved that Yashica MG-1. I started taking pictures of church events, like weddings and ceremonies. So after those first years, I really knew ow to use the camera. One day, my very respected Christian minister came to discuss cameras with me. He told me, ‘I have committed to go in a few days to Naga Hills as a missionary. I will stay there for over five years, and I need to document it with a camera.’
Then I thought of something. I told him, ‘You take my camera. Yeah, you take my camera.’
‘But why? Do you have an extra camera? How will you take photos?’
‘No, you take it. God will provide for me.’ He was surprised, but it made me feel wonderful. It was my only camera, but ten years later, I had three or four cameras. But I’ll never forget that, because you always have to give the best of what you have.” (p.402)
[a few days into the 2007 Saffron Revolution, after Law Eh Soe participated as a photojournalist and protestor]
“I knew the government was looking for me because just after I left, they raided my friend’s house where I had been hiding for a week. I only stayed in Rangoon for two days. Then I left and went out to the border area. I stayed on the Burma side of the border, because I had a good relationship with some people there. So this time, when I was in trouble, they helped me out. It’s like a movie–but it’s not like Hollywood.
When I got to the border area, I received help from some friends. When I was there, a man I knew from before gave me a satellite phone. ‘You can call anytime you want.’ He brought a TV from the city and he set it up for me with a satellite dish so I could see what was happening in Rangoon.
And then, for the first time in my life, I saw that CNN, the BBC, and Al Jazeera had all used my picture. This was the most wonderful thing in my life, I was so proud. I can’t compare my skills with many other photographers–I’m not a good photographer, but I can do something. In the 1988 uprising, mostly Westerners came and took photos inside Rangoon. In 2007, this was my time. Also, I saw that in Norway, some people were protesting Burma’s government because they were shooting and killing the monks. A few countries went to protest before the Burmese Embassy, and they were using the photo I took. I thought, Yeah, this is wonderful! That’s my picture! I was very proud of it.” (p.407-408)
“On March 18, I had to leave Thailand. I reached America on March 19, 2008. It was my birthday. Before the plane landed at JFK airport, I was still thinking about how I spent those two months in a remote area in Burma, and then now, I could see the Statue of Liberty. It was a wonderful moment. But the very simple thing was that my mom wanted to see me. My mother had been resettled in Buffalo in 2005, with my youngest brother. It had been almost six years since the last time I saw her. Like many people in Karen State, my family was suspected of supporting the KNU. Because of this, my mother and brother had to flee to the Nu Po refugee camp. My other brother fled even earlier and was resettled in 2000.
I had to sleep one night in New York. It was like another planet. But the thing is, it wasn’t a big culture shock for me because I read the newspaper and magazines, and I watch TV. I thought, So now I’m in the land of opportunities.
When I was in Burma, I’d never been cold. But here I’ve been in the cold many times. In Buffalo, I worked in a communication product company for a month. After only one month there, the refugee agency came and said, ‘We need you.’ So that’s why I went to work with them, and I’ve been there for almost nine months already. Working as an interpreter is a wonderful experience. I’ve been to schools, the hospital, the clinic, police stations–several places. I interpret for people from Burma: Karen, Burmese, Chin, and Arakanese. Also, I’m going to college now. I’m studying social sciences in Buffalo. Classes are wonderful, but I hate math. It’s awful for me and I’m not interested in it. I started writing some essays that I sent in to a Burmese website.
I’m living with my mother, my two younger brothers, their wives, and my niece. Buffalo is like the unofficial capital of refugees in New York. Resettled refugees have a wonderful life here. In every place, every corner of the world, they have different kinds of opportunities. But at the same time, there are challenges. For older people, the language barrier is a challenge. Also, culture shock. Young people adapt easily and quickly–it’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
Sometimes it makes me sad. One day, I went with a refugee woman to the clinic. While we were waiting at the clinic, we had a conversation. She said, ‘Yeah, we have a good life. Good social services. But the thing is, I miss my mountains, my river.’ She just said it simply, you know. But it made me sad. Nothing is like home–for me too. But in life, almost 75 percent of what happens, you never expect. The thing is how you deal with the challenges. You can see the cup is half empty, or you can have a half full cup. I always see it as half full.
I want to stay low profile, so I don’t usually want to do interviews. But a journalist came from Buffalo News to interview me, and they published an article about me. So that’s why when I go to the store or the clinic, they know that I’m a journalist. I think the people should know, so that the next generation knows what we have come through.
In America, I get $10 an hour. In a month, that’s 2,000-something dollars. Maybe for American people, it’s very little money. For me, it’s more than enough. I have a wonderful life. I just share my payment with my mom, and buy food. I only save some money to buy books. People told me I should go to the library, but although I love to read, I love to underline books too. I want to set up a library One day when I go back to Burma, I will ship all my English books to Burma and I will leave the Burmese books here.
So many Karen people are stateless, but at least now I can apply for permanent residence. At least here we belong to some country. I love Buffalo–we are already Buffalonian. My mom has a wonderful life here, after suffering for almost thirty years.
But just a month ago, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. She is going to have a major operation on July 22. It’s like God’s timing because she kept praying to see me, and now I’m by her side, you know? She’ll have her operation in a few days.
The thing is, life is like that. Nothing is permanent under the sun, my friend. I feel sad sometimes to have left Burma, but now I’m beside my mom. I’m very close to her, you know, so she is very happy that I am here. I have two brothers who are both married and have families now. But I’ve stayed single, so I can be beside my mom. She’s very happy. It’s God’s timing. Simple faith is the most important thing I’ve learned from my mother.” (p.409-411)
“As Mother Teresa said, ‘We cannot do great things. We can only do little things with great love.’ When I was a teenager until I was twenty-three or twenty-four, I admired Che Guevera. And now in my thirties, I admire Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa and the way they see the world. They live very simply. They act very simply. And also they did great things with big hearts. It’s wonderful.” (p.412-413)