“I don’t want people to call me a refugee. I don’t want to be a refugee. I like to live, I am a human being.”
“We are homeless. We have our home, but people have taken it, invaded the land. We don’t want this to happen. It is human-made.”
Place: Ban Dokita, Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Interview by Lena Dorfschmidt
The bold parts of this interview are extracts from an essay Shar Reh wrote on his experience.
The “Karenni State” is the state where I was born. It is located in the eastern part of Burma and is the smallest state in the country. We, the Karenni people, have realized, that a lot of natural resources and raw materials could be found in the land. There are about 300,000 people living in the state.
Before World War II and decolonization, the Karenni state was independent. No one ruled us since an agreement had been signed between the British and the Burmese not to invade our country. However, in 1947, when the Burmese government became independent, it tried to occupy the Karenni state. The people defended themselves straightaway. They did not want to be integrated into part of Burma. Officially however, the Burmese government included the Karenni state on the map. The Karenni have been fighting for more than sixty years. The Burmese Army started occupying the state, trying to catch the Province’s leaders. The latter started organizing themselves, despite the aggressive military occupation. The Burmese army fought with machine guns, but they also started building power plants(build Dam on Salween river) and putting land mines around, forcing the Karenni population away.
Today, land mines are still being placed and people are stolen, being forced to move from place to place. Many people have taken refuge in Thailand’s refugee camps. The new government of Burma is still making projects (Dam, Land confiscation,etc) that will hurt the Karenni state. The construction sites are still active and surrounded by military groups and land mines.
I was born in NaOwan village, Kayah (Karenni) state. When I was about three years old, I was forced to flee my village, Nawan. The Burmese army was shooting and killing the Karenni people on sight. More than three hundred households from our village and surrounding villages had to hide in the jungle. I was hiding with my mother and we would sometimes have to move every few days. We could never stay more than a couple of months.
As a result of the fighting between KNOP and SIORC troops, we had to flee to Thailand. We could only take what we could carry. We had to leave everything else behind. Many people faced troubles and suffered diseases on the trip.
When did you come to Thailand?
I don’t know exactly. We would go [with the battlefront]. When the Burmese military [advanced] we had to move towards Thailand. When they went back, we could also go back. [The battlefront] was moving. The Karenni Army [was much weaker than the Burmese]. They are very big, more people. It was an army.
The KNPP they protected their families. When they were fighting, we had to leave. Sometimes the bullets came very close to us.
In 1987 my father was killed in a military operation. They cut off his head. After that, I fled to Thailand when I was about three or four.
And then we went back in 1996. I think it was in 1996 that we moved from place to place.
Was your father a soldier?
Yes, he was chief of the soldiers. They knew that he was a chief, so they cut his head. I was only about three or fout years old and I don’t [remember] many things. I and my mom moved around together with other families. In 1989, after the uprising in Burma, there was an operation again. We had to flee again. Step by step we had to move around. At that time we were in Thailand, but it wasn’t a refugee camp yet. Just like a village, like a shelter. It wasn’t official yet, we weren’t recognized as refugees.
The Thai government allowed us to stay without granting us the status of refugees.
Only the KNPP supported and got help. Every time, KNPP would look after the families, the freedom fighter’s families in the area.
When you were moving around, how did you know where there were landmines?
The KNPP leaders and soldiers guided us the way from place to place. Sometimes on the way there could be… Sometimes we encountered the Burmese military and the KNPP had to fight. We didn’t know [where they were]. In the back and the front [of the group of families] there were KNPP soldiers to protect us. Sometimes there was a lash in front of us. […]
Until 1993 we went back to Karenni state again, meaning the situation was being negotiated with the Burmese again. The KNPP and the Burmese government were negotiating about a ceasefire agreement. We were separated in Thailand. Thailand said we have our own place, so it is better to go home. They get the ceasefire agreement in 1995 and after then we went to live in Burma for only about two or three [months]. Then we fled again, after only two or three months, because the ceasefire was broken. The Burmese made operations again.
At that period they made the “Four Cut Operation.” The military cut relatives [off from each other], the people that were fighting and their relatives, that lived in the country. They cut connections and also food to eat. If you are a fighter fighting in the field, you need to eat. They burnt everything. In that area, they shot people that were moving around like animals.
Where were you then?
At that time I was in Thailand, I was a student. If we get an area that the KNPP found for us, “Listen to us, you can stay here for a while.” But at that time, if it is our school time, we sat down under a tree to study. No school, but we studied there. Sometimes we couldn’t bring the blackboard.
We students had to move from place to place and study in the jungle.
I think after 1995/96 we fled to Thailand again and take a shelter in refugee camp. In Thailand, when we were in the refugee camp, it was not very safe, but safer than staying in the Karenni State.
Did you want to stay there?
For me, I don’t want people to call me a refugee. I don’t want to be a refugee. I like to live, I am a human being. If you are in the refugee camps, many things will support you. For example food. It comes in rations, we have to go [collect the rations] and we are not planning for ourselves. At the same time, we have to wait for people to bring things there, feeding us like…
If we stay in the country our home land, if it is no fighting, we can grow our food by ourselves. We feel better when we stay in our own country, our own land. And when we stay in Thailand, people see us as refugees, call us refugees, [as if] we liked being refugees. But no. We just get shelter. Refugee life is like… if it for example a cyclone collapses your village, there is a reason. But this is human-made, the things that happen, that happen to us. Human-made.
So what are people’s perspectives?
If there is still fighting, people have to suffer. As refugees you have to fear. You cannot do anything. If there is no fighting in the state, we go back there and struggle, but operate things as normal again. Our life as refugees [would be an experience, a memory]. No need to call us refugees anymore.
Did you go back to fight at some point of time?
Yes, I was able to go as others and have experience of fighting as others. Other [groups] than Karenni groups, I feel the same as them. They are fighting for freedom.
I like to see when I can go and do something there, so I go and serve there for a while. I saw a lot of things happening during my time in the Karenni Army, like every operation […] when we fought the Burmese, when they came to fight us, whether they lost or won they act the same. The village that is close to the fighting area, they went there and tortured, did things, made trouble. […] Like I said they did the Four Cut Operation. […] They brainwashed people. They wanted villagers to be against us, their own relatives.
They wanted people to believe that it is your fault?
Yes, because they gave us food, because they passed on messages, because you are relatives. Also the people that still live in the country. They suffer from the war, also. It is very hard to live in the jungle. Sometimes there is no food or something like that.
If you become a soldier, one part of your body is already… The first thing, the family, their family already loses part of a human.
If you step on a landmine, if you lose a soldier the remaining family is very disappointment. The hope of the family, the hope of the kids, and the wife. They remain depressed by the war. So sad about this. I feel not only me, many others, feel like that. They lost the people who they believed in. […]
[The sadness] can be a disease. It is a very big disease in Karenni Community, because of the war. It is very sad. Sometimes we are talking about this, […] and people can’t continue their talks. I already met people that stepped on landmines. I used to interview them. They like to tell about it. But […] then they can’t continue their talk. It touches them very deeply. […] If you are born with two legs, until you die, you want to have two legs.
It is a fight that has been going on for so long. How do people even get weapons?
I don’t know much about KNPP leaders, where the KNPP get things from. As I saw, some of them get [weapons] from the enemies, killing each other.
So it goes back and forth.
Back and forth. Killing each other means losing hope and human resources.
There is another fight going on here…
I told you about the land confiscation. We are very far from the village there inside in Karenni State, but we feel the same. Means, they have no guns. The troops have guns. They like to occupy and invade the land.
Here we are fighting, too, [printing the newspaper]. Let’s let everyone in the area know what it happening in the country. This is also fighting. A different fight. We cannot fight by their means, they have more strength, and they have a very big army. The Karenni army is maybe one tenth of theirs.
We get tired with this, but anyhow we have to continue, continue living.
Most people hate war. Many things have been lost. Means not only property, also human resources. People kill each other and what remains is feeling and depression, the disease depression.
How do people find hope?
I don’t know, but if there is no fighting, people may […] restart their life, when there is no fighting, when there is peace in the country. When they go back home, maybe they have to face many difficulties, but they would be free to walk, free to struggle. The hope would keep them alive again.
At the moment there is a ceasefire, but still people can’t return…?
We can’t return, because the ceasefire is not stable. That means it is hard to negotiate with the government and the troops. And also at the same time, [it is already the second] ceasefire in Karenni State that I have [experienced]. The first time it was broken and many things collapsed and also it has become weak. Refugees in Thailand, before only small amounts of people fled to Thailand. After that more than one third of [the Karenni population] fled to Thailand. A lot of villages [were] burned down and [people] killed. People also […] surrendered to Burmese, means they don’t want to… [The] Karenni Army groups fought against the Burmese, but [the Burmese] used spies among the Karenni people. So they persuaded… that was their strategy. […] It affected the people that were fighting.
There was more killing. Really very bad things happened.
So now people don’t [want this situation to repeat]. But anyhow the military groups are tired. The ceasefire agreement agreed on many things, but that aren’t met. After 1995 there was a ceasefire, but it was broken after only three months. This time it has already been three years.
Due to the war in Burma, in the Karenni state, some people lost their hope to go back and stay there. Since 2008 the Karenni people have the opportunity to resettle to a third country like Finland, USA, Australia… Even though they like to go back to their home, to their land, to farm. They like to do that, but they are worried about their future. They are worried that their children will be suffering like us, so they think it is better to get to a third country to stay and have a life there. Their children go to school, no fighting, no civil war, no need to flee from place to place.
I think before Refugee Camp 1, there were about 30,000, but now it is about 13,000. Half of them left already. Even life is safe or not, they have to go, restart their life there.
We are homeless. We have our home, but people have taken it, invaded the land. We don’t want this to happen. It is human-made.
When I was young and stayed in the village where I was born, I had a house. At that time there were a lot things to do, work in the farm. People had cows, we had our own property. We were happy. But when we fled we had to leave everything behind. Now we can’t afford to buy.