From Fear to Freedom in Thailand

By Saw Yan Naing 14 March 2013

MAE SARIANG, Thailand — Born in eastern Burma’s war-torn Karen State, Meen Pulu is now a naturalized Thai citizen and a member of the Thai Karen hill tribe.

She left Burma at the tender age of five when her village of Chaw Bwe Der in northern Karen State was attacked by the Burmese army in 1985.

Sitting in her wooden house in this northern Thai border town, Meen Pulu, 33, recalled childhood days spent in Burma, where her family was caught in the crossfire of the decades-old war between the government and ethnic Karen National Union (KNU) forces.

One incident sticks out in her mind. In 1985, her family was arrested by government troops.

“The Burmese army arrested my family. They [the military] killed a man in front of us. They cut his throat. He bled from his throat. My mother covered my eyes with her hand. She didn’t want me to see the killing as I was too young. But until this day I can still see that man’s death,” Meen Pulu said.

“They pointed guns at us. They could have shot me then, and I wouldn’t be here in Thailand,” she added.

Since she fled Burma in 1985, Pulu has lived in Mae Sariang with her relatives. She studied in Thai schools in her adopted home and in Chiang Mai, leaving school after ninth grade as her parents could no longer afford to pay for her education.

Pulu’s mother, Naw Wae Moo, 55, said when the family fled the village they sought shelter on the Thai-Burma border in an internally displaced persons camp. She said her daughter, Pulu, along with her two siblings, were lucky to have not been killed in their home village.

Wae Moo recalled the day they were arrested in Chaw Bwe Der, while her husband, a KNU soldier, escaped the village to safety.

“It was at about 4 am. They [the Burmese army] fired several shots when they entered our village. I didn’t manage to escape. They asked if there was a man in my home. I said there wasn’t,” she said. “They knew I was married to a KNU soldier, so they asked me where his documents and satellite phones were. I said I had nothing.

“They then asked me where my husband was. I told them that he was with his comrades,” Wae Moo continued.

The conversation was broken up by gunfire, after which she was interrogated by the government troops. She was then told to follow the sound of the shots where she would find her husband killed.

“The officer said: ‘Go and see your husband. Now he is dead.’ Then, I went where they told me to. But it was not my husband. It was a neighbor of mine. And I lied at them. I told them that he was my husband,” Wae Moo said.

Wae Moo was then made to watch as the soldiers stabbed her neighbor to death, she said. She was then told to follow the troops with her family, as they would use them as human shields.

A Christian officer prayed for the family before they left. Shortly afterward their house was sprayed with bullets.

“We crouched down on the ground. Bullets hit my house non-stop. Gunfire and mortar shells landed around the area where we were. I shouted ‘God, please protect us!’ I shouted every time after each mortar landed,” Wae Moo said.

The Burmese army left the village immediately due to the intense fire coming in. After the Burmese troops left, Wae Moo went inside her house and it was covered with blood.

Asked whether Meen Pulu intends to return to Karen State to rebuild a lost life, she said she would go back, but only to visit. She fears her old home has been confiscated by government forces as the village is now in government hands. Life in Thailand, for her, at least provides some security.

In Karen State, despite a recent ceasefire signed between the KNU and the government, the situation remains precarious.

“I don’t feel safe as there are government troops still in our village. I will stay on the border and even may die here,” Saw Hla Win, Pulu’s father, told The Irrawaddy at his bamboo house on the bank of the Salween River.

Pulu talked of the unpredictable nature of life. She has married a Thai former soldier and now has a son and a daughter who have been brought up in Thai society. They show little interest in their homeland.

“My children understand the Karen language a little. But they don’t speak Karen,” Pulu said.