From Burma to the Bluegrass: Eh Nay Thaw ’18 tells life story at eye-opening convocation
Centre College recently hosted a convocation titled “The Hidden Reality of Burma,” at which Burmese student Eh Nay Thaw shared his fascinating life story — a tale of his transformation from the squalor of a refugee camp to the relative safety of the U.S. and, this coming fall, a spot in Centre’s class of 2018.
The convocation was designed to give those in attendance unique insights into both the human rights advances and abuses happening in Burma (also known as Myanmar). In particular, the convocation detailed the longest continuing civil war in modern history occurring in Burma’s ethnic territories, including that of the Karen people, who reside mainly in the southern and southeastern areas of the country and comprise approximately 7 percent of the population. Over 100,000 Karen people are still detained in refugee camps in neighboring Thailand.
Speakers included Myra Dahgaypaw, a Karen human rights activist with the U.S. Campaign for Burma in Washington, D.C.; K’Waw, a leader among the resettled Karen population in Louisville, Ky.; and Eh Nay Thaw (right), a student at Louisville’s Waggener High School who lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for 10 years before coming to the United States.
Thaw opened his remarks with a quotation from General Maung Aye, former Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council in Burma, who said, “One day, if you want to see the Karen people, you’ll have to go and watch at the museum.”
“I don’t know what this means to you, or to the rest of the world,” Thaw said, “but to me it means the deliberate destruction of a racial, political and cultural group that we all know is genocide. But guess what? It was a failure, because here I am, a Karen person, standing in front of you, telling you the story of an ethnic nationality that has been persecuted for over half a century.”
Thaw went on to detail his life before the civil war: a mother who worked as a nurse, a father who sailed boats for local fisherman and an older brother who lived in an open, nurturing community. This rural way of life was abruptly demolished in the summer of 1997, when Burmese soldiers launched an offensive against the Karen people.
Thaw’s father was currently out at sea, so Thaw’s mother was left to gather what she could carry and flee along with hundreds of other villagers.
“My mother had to carry me, along with extra rice, a cooking pot, and other necessities,” Thaw explained. “The Burmese military burned down all the houses and killed the animals that were left. I was really sick, but there was no medicine to take and even worse, clean water was impossible to get. Malaria was the most common sickness because nobody had mosquito nets.
“We hid in the jungle for days and nights,” he continued. “We couldn’t even have a fire at night because we could have been spotted by the Burmese soldiers at any time.”
Thaw’s family soon arrived at Tham Hin refugee camp in Thailand (pictured right), where they were reunited with his father. The respite and relief was brief, however.
“The camp was extremely overcrowded and unsanitary,” Thaw said. “The conditions were severely cramped, with houses only six feet apart. The only roofing allowed was a plastic sheet. Food, water and medical care for us were rudimentary. The camp was heavily guarded by Thai military and security guards. None of us were permitted to leave the camps, but many people risked arrest or deportation by going in search of work outside the camp.”
One bright spot in Thaw’s camp life was the opportunity to go to school.
“We always had the motivation to go to school because we got to learn how to read and write, and the school provided food,” he said. “Even better, they taught us the English alphabet. They told us that if you know how to speak English, you are like the king of the hill. In such a place, it was true, and many kids worked really hard for it.”
With expanded knowledge, however, Thaw began to feel a rising discontent with his life.
“I missed my freedom,” he said. “The freedom to act, speak and think as I wanted to without restraint. I thought to myself, if I lived here in this refugee camp for the rest of my life, I would end up nowhere but the cage I was in.”
Indeed, many of the interned Karen people used a caged bird metaphor to describe their harrowing experience in the camp. They were not allowed to practice their religious or political beliefs, travel, work or observe Karen national holidays, which were perceived as political assembly by the Thai government.
Relief finally came for the Karen people in 2006, when countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands agreed to welcome Burmese refugees inside their borders. And while the Karen people were grateful for a new life in relative safety, the transition was not easy; Thaw returned to the caged bird metaphor to describe this process.
“When the owner comes and releases us from the cage, chances are we don’t know how to fly, because we didn’t have the opportunity to learn or practice how to fly, and sometimes we don’t even know what it means to fly,” he explained. “My family said goodbye to the refugee camp on December 18, 2007. When we arrived in the U.S., everything was so new and different, and we felt like a newborn baby.
“We felt completely blind due to language barriers, the vastly different culture, all the traveling and the new technologies,” he continued. “However, our struggle is a struggle that will prove to us that we are not just birds in a cage but worthy human beings with hope and a future.”
Now, as a U.S. resident who is preparing to start classes at Centre in the fall of 2014, Thaw knows that the struggle for Karen rights and freedom continues in a new way.
“Our struggle is far from resolved,” he said, “but it’s a struggle that will ultimately be fought on a different sort of battlefield. We can view it as a war without bloodshed. This is part of our parents’ vision from generation to generation. It is their greater and wiser vision which anticipates our return to Burma with the most powerful weapon: education.”
To that end, Thaw seeks to continue his own education and that of fellow Americans who do not know about the struggle in Burma, all with the goal of finding justice and peace for his people.
“The Burmese government would like you to believe that our ‘Karen book’ is closed and that hope is lost,” Thaw said in closing. “But this is not the ending! It is a new beginning, a beginning in which we all have knowledge, thoughts, a voice, and, most important of all, we have hope.
“Some countries may think that we are a people without a name,” he added, “that we are simply ‘refugees’ period. But, what they do not know is that before we became refugees, we had our own form of government, schools, churches, traditions, flag, national anthem, culture and community. Most important of all, we have a name: we are Karen.”
By Mariel Smith
(Myanmar military photo by Peerapat Wimolrungkarat)