Zember is a Kayan (Padaung) refugee who lived in the village of Nai Soi, about an hour’s drive north of Huay Pu Keng. In 2005 she applied for the UNHCR resettlement scheme and was accepted to New Zealand. However she, along with several other Kayan families, was unable to get Thai exit permits allowing them to leave for resettlement. She kindly wrote the following article for us, in order to raise awareness of the situation. On August 28th 2008, following the publication of this article, Zember was finally granted permission to leave and departed for New Zealand.


Zember’s story

My name is Mu Lo; my parents (Mú Pâu and La Peh) gave me that name because it means ‘black’ in our Kayan language and they thought I was a very dark baby; but my friends call me Zember because I was born in December.  I was born in 1985 in Demawso in Karenni (Kayah) State, Burma, but now I live in Baan Mai Nai Soi, in the north of Thailand.

A lot of journalists have come to my parent’s house to look for me.  I am frightened to talk to them, but I want people to know my story.

I arrived in Thailand in 1989 with my family.  We were in a group of 7 Kayan families who had to run away because of the war in our country.  I was very young and I don’t remember much but my parents have told me that we had to run away from our village all the time because of the Burmese soldiers.  My father was the headman of the village so the Burmese military kept accusing him and they made him choose men for them to take to be porters.  We did not have enough food because the soldiers took the men as porters so there was no one to work on the farms. When the Burmese soldiers came to our village they stayed in our house for a long time and my mother had to go everywhere trying to find food for them, so we ran away.

First we came to Naw Pa Ah on the border and we stayed there for about two and a half years.  There were many other Karenni refugees there, not just the Kayan people, but it wasn’t safe.  We had to keep hiding in the jungle because of the fighting between the Burmese and the Karenni army, so we all moved to another place.  Then a Thai businessman came and he took us to Nai Soi where we are now.  His name was Tu Loh; he used to take money from the tourist to look at us, but now he is gone. We have not seen him for a long time. Now there are other Thai people who collect the money.  Then the Thai authorities told all the refugees who had stayed with us at Naw Pa Aw to go into the new Baan Tractor camp, but they did not ask us to move, so we stayed outside the camp.

So now we still live in Mae Hong Son province in Thailand.  There are 23,000 Karenni refugees in the camps.  The camps are closed; most people are not allowed to go in or out, but our village is just outside the camp checkpoint.  The Thai authorities let us stay there so tourists can come to see us.  This is because some of the Kayan women wear rings around their neck.  I used to wear the rings too.

In our village there are about 50 families (about 250-300 people).  Our life is very simple.  We have no electricity, proper sanitation or telephones. Our houses are made of wood and leaves.  They break easily.  We cannot improve our lives because we do not have money and we are refugees so we cannot own land or work. Also the tourists think we are primitive people; the guides say they don’t want to see good roads, or clean villages or anything modern, so we have to live like this to please the tourists.

The women of the village can only run stalls for tourists and weave scarves to sell.  The men can do some carpentry for our community, but they are not allowed to work. My father collects empty beer cans and sells them to get money.  The men feel shame because they have to live off the money the women earn, so many of them get drunk on rice wine because they have nothing to do. Farming is not possible as we have no land, but our culture is farming.  Some of the people used to do temporary agricultural or construction work for local Thai people, earning about 40 baht (US$1.2 / €0.9) a day.  They can do that because refugees work for less money than the Thai people.

It takes me one day to make a scarf and it is very hard work because it hurts my shoulders and back. If I sell a scarf I can get about 30 or 40 baht but in one month I only used to sell about 2 scarves.  In the rainy and hot season not many tourists come and all the women make scarves, but now that I have taken the rings off no one will buy anything from my family’s shop. The women who wear the rings are given 1500 baht a month by the Thai people who control the village; but sometimes when there are no tourists they are not paid. 

Now I am a teacher in the main camp.  I teach Standard 9 history.  It is very difficult as the History book is in English and I don’t understand some of the words; also I did not have any training to do this job.  Most Kayan women have very little education.  They have to leave school early so they can be in the village when the tourists visit, but I finished High School and then I went to Post-10 school in camp.  This is the only higher education school and my friend and I were the first Kayan women who wore rings to reach this standard.  I graduated last year.  My parents felt very proud of me.

We have many problems with education in the camps because we do not have enough teachers or books.  Foreign teachers are not allowed to teach in the camp and our Karenni teachers are not qualified.  They have very little education themselves; they just try their best.  We cannot learn from the internet either as we have no telephones.  I want to study more, but there is no further education for the refugees.

Also if we are sick we have to pay to go to hospital because the NGOs do not help the Kayan people who live in the refugee villages. They only help the people in the camp, but the Thai government does not give the 30 baht treatment to refugees.   This is difficult because we have very little money to pay the hospital and it is very expensive.

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