Ma Lo

“The last time we ran away the men from the villager came back from the battle and told us to run away from our home”

My name is Ma Lo. Kayan people don’t have surnames; people just call us by our given name. I am 24 years old. This is the story of my life so far.
I come from Burma, but I live in Thailand now. I came to Thailand when I was six years old. I came to Thailand because of the political situation in Karenni State.

I was born in Burma on March 26th 1983. I am Kayan. The Kayan are one of the ethnic groups in Karenni State.  The Burmese government persecute the ethnic groups. When I was five year old my parents and brothers left Burma because of the fighting in the village. Before they left they learnt about the situation on the border from some other people who left ahead and they heard conditions there were better than staying in their old home, so they decided to leave. Before they left my parents took me to stay with my aunty in Rwan Khu village because they already had four children to carry on the difficult journey and they told me that they will come back to collect me if the conditions were good. The next morning they left for the settlement on the border, which was in an area protected by the Karenni army.

My childhood in Burma

When I was staying with my aunt I had only two shirts and two skirts. I had to work hard everyday. In the morning at five o'clock I had to wake up to cook breakfast. After breakfast we had to go to work on the farm. Before I went to the farm I always picked up my small basket and a small chopping hoe to take to the farm. I didn't have money to buy the things that I needed. I didn't have washing powder, soap and shoes. I didn't use to wear shoes and clean my teeth when I was a child.

One day during April we celebrated our traditional Kan Kwan festival. The celebration ground was very close to my home so I wanted to join the celebration very much. So I ask permission to my aunty, but she didn't allow me to join the celebration. When my aunty didn’t allow me to join I was so angry and cried all night. The aunt I stayed with had one daughter and one son. They are my cousins. Her husband was killed by the Burmese military. That May every family had to provide one porter to the army or pay money instead. My aunty wanted to pay, but she didn't have enough money to pay so my 15 year old cousin had to go to be an army porter. At that time I was so worried about him. He had to go along with the army for two weeks. When he came back he was very tired and pale. 

After a year my father suddenly came back from the refugee camp to take me along to join them. When I saw my father I was so happy to meet him. Then he hugged me and gave me some money to buy some things. At the time my aunty asked me to cook dinner for my father. I at once got up and cooked for my father. He stayed with my aunty for only two days, then he took me to the border camp near Thailand. We had to take seven days to reach the camp. When our group was on the way we had many difficulties .We had to eat poor food with salt and chilies only. One day on the way the man who went ahead met the Burma army and he made us stop and we hid under the tree in the bush for about two hours until the army passed. After that we had to start again on our long journey. It was night time when we arrived at the camp and met my family. I was so happy to see them. When they saw me they were also happy too. At that time I had two elder brothers and two younger brothers and my mother was pregnant again. The next morning they took me shopping in the village. This was the first time I went shopping.

I start to wear the rings

After two days my mother gave me a coil of brass to wear on my neck. I didn't like to wear it but I didn’t dare to refuse, so I had to obey her. When I started to wear the rings I felt heart sick and I couldn't sleep for two or three days because it was uncomfortable, but after a long time I got used to the rings. Since many of my friends were also wearing the brass my heart changed to be happy and comfortable.

I like my traditional culture - that is nature and language. I like to keep the traditions because our Kayan ladies have kept the rings for many hundreds of years. If we still keep the tradition they would be very happy, but I also want to be educated person and I don’t want anyone control me. Some people think we came to Thailand for money, but this is not true. We came to Thailand because of the war.  This is what happened to me when I was a child.

Our village is burnt down

There was often fighting in the area between the Burma army and the Karenni army. During that time most of our villagers lived in anxiety. We often had to run away to hide and then return to our homes, because we were worried that the Burmese military would come to attack us. For this reason it was impossible to have schools to educate the children. The last time we ran away the men from the villager came back from the battle and told us to run away from our home and take lots of things with us. It was about 6:30 pm when we ran away. We ran for one hour to one of the Thai villages. We had to rest for two day in the Thai village Daw Kha Htar near Nai Soi. After two days some men from the village went back to the border to made enquiries and they found some of our villages had been burnt down by the military force. That is why we had to settle in Thailand up to the present time. We all moved to live in a new village. My sister, Tina, was born there, so now my parents had seven children. My mother was very ill after she had Tina and she could not feed her so we had to buy milk.

When we were settled in the Thailand village my health was very bad because I got malaria. Then some of the Thai people gave some medicines for me so my headache felt better, but in the next few months I still got malaria very often, about ten times in two years. Now I am very lucky to avoid getting bad malaria. My youngest brother also got malaria and my mother also still had bad health with her heart disease and malaria too. All my family was very lucky as they survived the malaria. 

My education

When I was young I really wanted to study with my friends, but my mother didn’t allow me to go to school because she had bad health and in my family I was the only one able to earn a little money from tourists for my poor family. If I went to school my mother and all my family would be poorer, so I always have to obey my parents. Everything I did was to help my family.  When I was 14 years old I started going to the Karenni school. In the class room I was the eldest one so I felt very shy in my first two or three days. After that I told myself to stop being shy so I felt better.

I only went to school for four years, because I was too shy to continue with younger children, so I decided to leave school. Now I have a big concern about my education. I know that I was wrong. I was too crazy at that time because I did not obey my parents who wanted me to stay at school.

Marriage & being a mother

After I left school I married Gabriel. I met my husband in the village.  He arrived from Burma after me and we went to the same school. My husband lived in another village called Huai Seau Tao, so after the wedding I moved to my husband’s village to live with his parents.  There were four people in our new family.

About one month after my wedding my parents started to build their new house in my old village and my father-in-law wanted to help them to build the new house. In the morning he went with someone to go to my old village, but on the way some police took him to the police station and then put him in prison for 12 days. He also had to paid some money to the police to allow him to come back home. This is because we are refugees and we do not have any Thai papers so we are not allowed to go out of our village. I felt very sad during that time because I'm the new one in the family and I couldn't do anything to help him.

One year later my daughter was born. I was so happy to be her mother. I gave her a Thai name, but her grandmother gave her a Kayan traditional name . So now we are five people in my family. My daughter has started to go to nursery school now.

Surviving through tourism

I used to be a shopkeeper and also weave scarves, bags and clothes. I had a small shop and sold souvenirs to tourists in the village.  There is only me able to earn a little money for my family.

Many tourists asked why they must pay to come in our village.  Even my friends have to pay to come to see me. We do not want people to pay, but it is not us who make people pay.  There are three places in Mae Hong Son which tourists can visit to see Kayan ‘long-neck’ people. In the rainy season there are very few tourists so we cannot earn money.  We have to go to the jungle to get bamboo shoots to eat. It is difficult for the men because the tourists aren’t interested in them and they cannot earn money for their families.  That is why I want my daughter and I to be educated. I like to be Kayan, but some time I don’t like very low education, no freedom, no experience, bad situation, and no unity. I would like to continue my education but how, because I have to earn money for my family and I don’t know where I can study?

For this reason we welcomed tourists.  We like to speak with them and explain about our life.  I didn’t get angry even when tourists called me a ‘long neck’ or treated me badly. In our old village we were not allowed to tell them the truth about anything. They just wanted us to smile always.

Hope for a better future

I want all the people in my village to study and get more chance. If one day my education is good I will help my village to teach others anything as able as I can. I hope that all will go well in my future.

Taking the rings off!

Then my life changed. In September 2006 I took my rings off!  At first I felt very light and very tired. It felt like I had forgotten something! My neck ached and was very uncomfortable, but it got better soon.

When I took them off I thought I would put them back on in a few months because I still love my tradition, but now I'm not sure. If I put the rings back on I will have no opportunities to improve my life or travel anywhere. I also like that people do not stare at me when I am on the street or at the market. I can also drive the motorbike now. My husband is also very happy because now people do not stare and he wants me to have more freedom. The rings are like a prison sometimes.
I took them off because the Thai woman who controlled my old village did not want me to study and work. She wanted me to stay all the time in the village with the tourists. She said she would not give me any money even if I still wear the rings. She said she will also take my shop away. She said she will not pay the money for my food. After I took the rings off she said I must not talk to any foreigners. She does not want them to know we can take the rings off.  She told everyone we have to keep them on all our lives, but that is not true. About ten girls have taken them of because they want to study in the refugee camp.

I don’t want to be shown to tourists any more.  Someone made a postcard of me feeding my baby.  They sell this postcard everywhere. I feel ashamed but I cannot do anything to stop this.  Now I took the rings off because I don’t want to be treated like this any more.  I want respect.  I don’t want people to stare at me as if I am strange any more.  I love my tradition, but our tradition is not about tourists.  Our tradition is to live in our villages growing our own food and being left alone to lead a free life.

“The young people understand me. They do not want to spend their lives posing for photographs, but the old people are frightened. They think we will starve if we take off the rings. If we don’t wear the rings we don’t get any money and we cannot find other jobs in the town”.  We have to get special permission and a work permit and this is difficult and expensive and there aren’t many jobs we can do.  Sometimes NGOs will let us work for them if we have a Green Card but some people do not have any ID cards, only refugee registration documents.

We Move to Huay Pu Keng

I do not know what will happen in the future because the local authorities wanted us to move to a new place near the Burmese border. At first everyone was very sad because they didn’t want to go anywhere. We knew it would be hard work to build a new house, kitchen and toilets. However the Thai authorities then said that we did not have to go, but if we went we would have a chance to develop and improve our life. They also said that if we didn’t like it then after a few months we could move into the refugee camp.  The Governor wrote to us and promised us many things, including a school, a road, and a bridge across the river, but our life is very difficult.

There is very little water and firewood in the new place and it is very far away so not many tourists come because you can only get there by boat.  We do not have a road so we have to pay to cross the river and the tourists won’t walk to our village because it is too far, so we cannot sell things from our shops.  We do not receive any salary.  We can grow some vegetables, but there is no space to grow rice, so we have to ask NGOs and other donors to give us rice every month  We are also worried because the hospital is very far away and we have a clinic, but it does not have enough medicine.

My daughter used to go to a Thai kindergarten and I want her to learn Thai, but in the new Huay Pu Keng village we don’t have any Thai teachers so she cries and does not want to go there. There is only one good thing about moving to the new place; we have no money but we are freer. No one controls us any more.  Even though it is difficult we do not want to return to our old life; we want to improve our situation.

I like living in Mae Hong Son. Now I have been here for many years I feel like it is my country. Now I want to build a better future for all the Kayan people.

February 2008
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