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 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.

Why I want to be resettled

Some people in my village, especially the old people, are content with their life in Thailand.  They feel safer than they were in Burma and they are happy to spend their life in one place and they do not want any other opportunities. The reason I want to go to New Zealand is because I hear that the women there are very free; they can do any job.  I want the chance to learn more and change my life.  I already speak English so I think it would be easy for me to study in New Zealand.

I feIt like I was just owned by the people who bring the tourists. When I told my foreign friends that I just want to be normal and work in an office they are surprised; but I am fed up of smiling for the tourists.  They didn’t think I was like them; they say some bad things about us because they don’t know I can understand them and they laugh at our culture and ask the same questions all the time.  It is very boring.  If I have children I don’t want my children to live like this. 

I was not allowed to move freely in Thailand.  They will not give us Thai citizenship and let us integrate.  I could only stay in the refugee village or visit Mae Hong Son for shopping in the day time.  Most of my people cannot even visit Mae Hong Son, but I could visit because I wore the rings so the police did not stop me.

In my village we meet a lot of tourists and I talk to them about the rest of the world and I hear that New Zealand is very beautiful. New Zealand is a big country but it is not very crowded.  My world is very small here as we are not allowed to go anywhere.  People from all over the world come to see us and I want to see their countries too. 

So when we heard that UNHCR had a resettlement programme and that we could apply to go to third countries some of us were very excited.  My neighbours, my uncle and my sister and brother in law applied and they were all accepted to go to Finland and New Zealand.  I decided to go with my sister because she and her husband don’t speak English and I knew I could help them and UNHCR agreed; so did the New Zealand government.

We are kept like prisoners in Thailand

We started to prepare to leave.  We registered in August 2005 and we were interviewed in November 2005 and we heard early in 2006 that we were going to New Zealand.  We had a health check in June and we were told we would go soon, maybe in July.  Our friends who are already in New Zealand called us and said they heard we were coming and the house was ready for us. but we waited and waited and waited and no one came to call us.

When we applied for resettlement Section 19, where we lived, was part of the main refugee camp 1 in Baan Mai Nai Soi.  After we were chosen to go to third countries, the authorities said that Section 19 was no longer be part of the camp (they made this official early in 2007; but we were due to leave in 2006). The Governor’s office started to argue that we never had the right to apply.  My brother in law said many times ‘Why did they let us register, why did they write to tell us we could go, why did they tell us to get ready to go, why did they do medical checks if we were not allowed to go?  Better they tell us at the beginning that we cannot go.  Then they told us nothing; they said wait you will go soon, then no one came to tell us anything.  This is why we are going crazy.  We are human beings not animals that you do not talk to”.

So I took my rings off.  I love my culture, but it is our tradition which has made me a prisoner. First I took off the heavy shoulder rings, then a few weeks later I made my neck rings shorter, then I took them all off – my neck rings and my leg rings which hurt my legs a lot.  My sister helped me take them off. When I first took them off I felt very strange.  I thought I would feel light, but I felt heavy. My niece, who is 12 years old, took her rings off and soon my sister will take her rings off too.  We are sorry to throw away our culture but we are forced to do this because of our situation.

But now the people in my village and the Thai people still stare at me and gossip about me because I took the rings off.  They say I am not beautiful anymore and I am no use.  They say bad things about me; so now I have gone to live inside the refugee camp away from all the tourists.  They also spoke badly about my brother-in-law; they were cross with him because they said he made the Thais angry with the Kayan people. At first the camp authorities said we could move into the camp if we wanted to, but then they said we couldn’t.  Then they said we must move to Huay Pu Keng near the Burmese border, but we were frightened to go there; then they said we could stay where we were. We were very confused as the governor’s office tell us one thing, but the Ampeur’s office tell us another thing and the Oo Sor (Thai security guards) tell us something else; so we are always very confused about our situation and UNHCR do not come to explain anything to us. But in the end we all just went into the camp. 

One thing we know is that we are really refugees; we are victims of war and we have UNHCR registration papers and the Thai authorities gave us BMN status; this means they accept we are refugees, so why are we treated differently from the other refugees? There are only a few of the Kayan who want to leave.  Why can’t they let us leave; they will still have other long-neck women to attract the tourists to Mae Hong Son.  We are not going to make a tourist village in another country; we want to escape from that life. The villages will not close because of me.  More than 20,000 refugees have already left from the other camps.  The governor says he keeps us here because we are happy; maybe some people are happy and they want to stay in Thailand, but my family and I want to go, so why do they make us stay here?

Now I don’t care which country I go to; I just want to leave Thailand.  I am so angry I cannot live here anymore.

Most of all I want to be free.
February 2008
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