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Samy’s Story: The Making of a Burmese Refugee

When you live in a place with a military junta-run government, you're apt to be denied certain freedoms-like the freedom to...

When you live in a place with a military junta-run government, you're apt to be denied certain freedoms-like the freedom to say "no" to said junta if it wishes to enlist you in forced labor.

So the option of politely declining was off the table when military officials showed up at Samy's door in Kachin, Myanmar, and conscripted his father and older brother to carry supplies for them. This ‘request' came right after they ‘appropriated' their farmland, their livelihood, for the state's use. Never mind that Samy's dad was far from a young man, and suffered from chronic illness--they made him march for miles a day in mountainous terrain carrying heavy loads on his back anyway.

Samy's brother was only 15 or 16 at the time, and soon ran away-resigning him to a life spent in hiding. The military has a habit of shooting deserters on sight.

I remember pretty vividly Samy telling me his story over dinner last summer in Mae Sot. There were plenty of instances of my hands waving wildly above the plate of chicken masala Samy had made, reactionary blurtings of "wait, they did what?" followed by whatever the version of a jaw dropping to the floor is that actually happens in reality. He maintained a strained smile throughout telling the account, even while I insisted he repeat parts over and over (while astonishingly good considering the circumstances, Samy's English can be tough to decipher).

With few other options, the family split up: the now-wanted brother and ailing father headed north to the Chinese border, and Samy went east to find work on his grandfather's farm. At 12 years old, Samy worked long days as a farmhand in the rice fields--long days made longer by the fact that the Burmese military demanded a quota of rice every month regardless of yield. He was also frequently forced to help construct military camps to help in the government's campaign against the Kachin people, an ethnic minority in Burma, and to stand guard at night for guerilla attacks that never came.

After many years, Samy moved on to work on his uncle's farm, fearing he'd be enlisted in forced labor--or worse--if he stayed on. Just three months in, Samy and his uncle were awoken one night by a cacophony of shouts and animal grunts. They rushed out to find a man stealing one of Samy's uncle's two goats. The noise had awoken the villagers, and they surrounded the thief--whom they now suspected had been the cause of a recent epidemic of vanishing livestock.

When they took him to the local police, however, matters grew complicated: it turned out the thief was an officer in the military. After the police confirmed this, they wouldn't touch him--the military trumps all in Burma. Instead, the officer claimed that Samy the villagers had assaulted him, even though he was quietly led to the station, overpowered by 10 villagers, and didn't have a scratch on him. But the fear of the military is so great in Burma that though Samy and his uncle had the audacity to say that the officer was lying, no one else did. They were each promptly sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Tired of living in fear, unwilling to waste years of his life in prison for a made-up crime, and without any home to speak of, Samy decided to take flight--so he headed for the closest border, on foot. Once across, Samy found himself in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand, along with 60,000 other exiled Burmese.

His uncle, feeling too old to flee, stayed on. He spent 6 years in a Burmese jail for trying to stop a thief. Samy's mother stayed behind in Myanmar as well. Both recently passed away.

Stories like Samy's are par for the course in the refugee camps that litter the border between Thailand and Myanmar; the junta that rules Burma is among the most oppressive and ruthless in the world. It's commonly ranked alongside North Korea in human rights abuses. Offenses include forced labor (often from children) and seizing the land and belongings of its citizens--as we've seen in Samy's story--and having no free speech or press.

The military has been reported to use citizens to clear minefields, by forcing them to march through them at gunpoint, and pushing them unwillingly onto the front lines. Wars waged by Myanmar's junta against its ethnic minorities have ushered in murmurs of genocide--2 million have fled Myanmar for this reason. I won't go into detail on further atrocities, but know that the human rights record of Burma's junta makes China's government look like Gandhi.

Truly understanding the rampant corruption and oppression in Myanmar (which I don't) requires probing its complex history of occupation, embattlement, and military takeover. But here's what's of the utmost relevance, the short of it:

Burma, renamed Myanmar in a sort of rebranding effort after a regime change in 1989, has been under authoritarian rule since 1962. And though a universally supported democratic movement bubbled to the surface in the late 1980s, it was crushed by the military junta. The government agreed to hold elections in 1990, in which the beloved Aung San Suu Kyi won in a landslide, taking the junta by surprise. It has never recognized the results, and has instead kept Suu Kyi in either prison or house arrest ever since. Small movements rise up from pro-democracy activists from time to time, but the fear of the military has been too great for a full-fledged movement to gain traction.

When Samy talks about the junta, called the State Peace & Development Council (no irony intended), or the SPDC, he does so as if it were an elemental force of nature--a perpetual natural disaster. More than anything, he simply fears it--as he says all of his countrymen do.

Next week--now that you're all acquainted--I'll dig into the business of getting Samy as far away from it as possible.

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