Broken dreams of an old Shan lady

Photo and story by Leng Lao

As soon as my car came to a stop at my home, my panicking mom approached me “The green cladding soldiers (SSPP/SSA) already sieged Loi Hon. They really got hold of it. My poor fellow villagers will suffer even more”. Mom was whining while not leaving her sight from news in her mobile phone. 

“Just let it go, mom. Even in the next ten years, nothing will change. Shan State has been deeply fractured ” said I to cut short the conversation. I was too lazy to discuss any further news about politics in Myanmar. It felt so boring, or perhaps hopeless for me since it became known that Min Aung Hlaing sieged power. 

Several months passed, I just reckoned that Loi Hon was a mountain in Mong Kung, my mom’s hometown. All the armed conflicts that have taken place occurred just in close proximity to mom’s birthplace. It is unsurprising that she is so attentive to the situation there, despite her departure from the place for more than 30 years. I and my mom are like tongue and teeth. Just like several other pairs of mom and daughter, there have hardly been any issue we can agree on except politics in Shan State and the Myanmar soldiers.  

On any tea drinking day served with sesame in a traditional Shan style, my older siblings and my mom’s friends and all her old pals would sit around together. Such days would boast the juiciest conversation. I still have the desire to hear time and again some stories told when I was much younger.

A daughter of a goldsmith in Mong Kung, mom was orphaned since young. She was raised by her aunt who lived in another village. Luckier than other girls, mom got the chance to study and learned to read traditional Shan language.  Living the life of a country girl, she had to wake up to scoop water, pound paddies, grow rice and sesame. Her life was so intertwined with the Teng River, the main waterway of Mong Kung. In her adolescences, at 16, she was arranged to marry a Shan soldier from Hsipaw, North of Shan State, who was deployed there. Life of a young girl has since been turned upside-down. 

“As rice was yet well cooked, when news broke that Myanmar soldiers were nearing, we had to put the rice cooker on our head and ran. Even without having yet eaten, I wondered how I pulled off such frantic run” said mom with laughter as if it were a funny anecdote.

“With light shower, it was freezingly cold. Barrages of gun shot flew above our head. Myanmar troops were heavily deployed there as they were determined to lay siege to the Shan soldiers’ stronghold. They pushed the Shan soldiers from every front. As men went out to fight, we women had to take care of children. The families got separated and ran amok.  I had to stand up the whole night to lull my children to sleep aimed by sleeping pills.” Despite it was long past, mom is still able to recount it as if it happened just yesterday. 

“I had to stand up just to get prepared to run from the Myanmar soldiers all the time. If necessary, we would seek refuge in the home of other villagers. None of them wanted to take us in since we are a family of Shan soldier. If the Myanmar soldiers knew, the people in such family would be vulnerable to such deadly reprisal.” Mom recalled the time when the Myanmar army laid siege to the Shan soldiers’ stronghold in Sanen township. Shan State’s Panglong. The incidence was known to the older people as “The siege of Sanen.”

Life of a Shan soldier’s wife was not that rosy. Wherever her husband went to, the family had to be there. They managed to move around living in such uncertain future mostly in the forests under the control of Shan soldiers. Some Shan soldiers’ wives had to deliver their babies by themselves in the forest or with minimal help from one midwife. It was not possible to get to the city as they were in the watchlist of the Myanmar army for being married to illegal persons. Lacking access to medical services in the city caused mom to lose her third child due to an unknown diseas when the baby was just eight months old. He was beautifully named by his father as “Sai Noom In.”

 What happened to Sai Noom In also happened to many other children in Myanmar. This has been going on repeatedly in the past 70 years until now. It has resulted from such protracted armed conflicts in Myanmar.

As they had to move around with such difficulty as a family, it caused much problem mentally to the revolutionary soldiers. When I was a baby, my dad nearly buried me alive simply for my nonstop cry, in order to save lives of the soldiers and several other families. If really necessary, I am sure my father would do it. Night after night, sleeping pill was grinded and stuffed into the mouth of a baby like me just to prevent me from making noise at nighttime. Even when I was four or five years old, I still cried a lot, and an uncle in my neighborhood gave me a new name, “Ae Dam Nam” or “a crybaby”. I share the story to people just to vent my upset and my lack of understanding why mom would have force feed me the sleeping pills. Everyone would unequivocally let me know how lucky I was to survive. 

             After the Shan soldiers’ base in Sanen was laid siege by the Myanmar army as the Myanmar army heavily sent their troops there just to take over the stronghold of Shan soldiers, my parents decided to send me and other siblings as well as dozens of children of other solders over the Khong River, otherwise known as the Salween River, to reach the Thai border. 

In a small vessel, we managed to get across the torrential Salween River. It was a belief among Shan people that no one speaks about bad things while riding in a boat across the stream. But mom recounted to me how in such tiny and shaky vessel, we could barely make it across. Upon hitting the road, all the children were put in baskets on the back of horses. We trekked day and night from the inner town of Shan State, and it took several tens days to reach the border. It took so long time, since children like us could not travel on the main routes; we were Shan soldiers after all. 

Growing up at the border, we were so familiar with bunkers which were ubiquitous in almost every home. On a given day, the Myanmar soldiers would bomb us from the air. It destroyed even the school’s bell made of the exploded artillery shell. My family commuted between the Thai border and Shan State (in areas under control of Shan soldiers). But my parents decided to build a small house by the river in Huay Yao opposite to the Thai border in Chiang Mai’s Wiang Haeng District. 

In this lush and small village lied the plentiful sources of food, enough to feed the whole army. Paco fern and cicada were a well-known delicacy here. There was a local hot spring and the torrential river, something I had never seen before. When the border crossing was still open, there was the bursting food market stretching to the villages in Thailand for various kinds of vegetable and fish. From the banks of the Salween River, the Thai goods were sent to inner cities of Shan State. It was a pity that if there had not been armed conflict and the border crossing was still open, the hot spring in Huay Yao would certainly have been turned into one of the most famous onsens in the South of Shan State.

             Soon after settling at the border, mom was trained to be an assistant to doctor in hospital. Most of the Shan soldiers’ wives had to practice certain skills since it was part of their patriotic mission toward the nation. Some became female soldiers, while others became teachers. They all helped with office work of the army, while others helped to restore the cultural activities. The training mom received ranged from making a diagnosis to drug administration. From a country girl, she was virtually elevated to an assistant to medical doctor. Sometimes, she also changed course and became a gem seller bringing in quality previous stones from Mong Hsu to sell here. 

Life was as smooth as it could be for mom and all of us. At least, it was much better than the run-away life from the Myanmar soldiers in the battle zone. A big hiccup arose, however, as dad ran away to Shan State deserting the Mong Tai Army (MTA) led by Khun Sa and joining the Shan State Army – North, another armed group in Shan state. Even now, we still have not any clue as to why he made such call.  

The incidence caused mom and all of us who had not run away with dad to be ordered to relocate from Huay Yao to an inner town in Shan State instantly. Otherwise, we would have to be punished in lieu of our dad. It was the first time I was exposed to an immense suffering. 

“Going back to where we came from, we all would starve to death.” Mom told us as she decided to take her family to the city of Chiang Mai to find some job there. 

             The first job she landed was construction work which earned her 60 baht a day. Mom was perhaps among the first batches of migrant workers seeking employment in Chiang Mai. Mom still had to live a life on edge. This time, instead of fleeing from bullets, she had to run away from the Thai police. An undocumented migrant worker, she had to live in constant fear and suspicion. No one who have never experienced it firsthand would not understand it. On certain nights, we and several other families had to bring mattresses and  pillow stools made of wood to sleep on the top floor of the building fearing the police raid in our room at night. Sometimes, we put the padlock outside pretending no one was at home just to trick the police. These methods were not that effective, and if worst comes to worst, we had to run as fast as we could. Perhaps, because she had run from the Myanmar soldiers before, she was able to outrun the Thai police every time. We siblings would stand by and cheered her up whenever the police entered the construction site. 

Mom did not remarry and lived off menial work for several years. We were so familiar with the canals around Phu Kham Intersection as we took shower there everyday. Mom was among the labour force that helped to carry bricks and sand to build the Central Kad Suan Kaew. From a menial worker in Chiang Mai, she moved to work in the capital city, Bangkok, to earn a pay raise. She used to live even in a slum, in the midst of so dirty and polluter water. 

As mom’s plastering skill has improved and she started to work faster, she has also enjoyed a pay raise. Even though she could not read Thai, she was able to recognize numeric values, and that made it possible for her to never take a wrong bus while in Bangkok. 

After the dissolution of Mong Tai Army, mom had the gut to visit her old home in Huay Yao once. Sadly, Huay Yao was reduced to a dilapidated place by wars, even now. People who used to live here have all migrated to Thailand. As time passes, mon changed to other job, mostly homemaking and cooking. As she got older, she quitted working in the city and moved to enjoy the serene life at the border. In her spare time, she regularly checked out news from her hometown. Those older persons like mom tend to be aware of the situation in Shan State much more than their descendants like us. 

             “I feel pitiful for both the refugees and the camouflage cladding soldiers (RCSS/SSA) at the frontline who are exposed to suffering from all fronts. In Facebook, they said the new arrivals have taken over Loi Hon mountain, and they barely speak any Shan. They only speak Wa” said mom one day late last year during winter. 

 “Well, because the green cladding soldiers and Wa are allied” said I in short reply to mom. Mom continued that;

             “The new arrivals who took over Loi Hon said that with little water supply it is so difficult living on Loi Hon mountain. Perhaps, they would not make it there and they may realize they should not have wasted their energy to manage to lay siege to such place. But I would say that even though Loi Hon is only a mountain, a small mountain, but it means much to me and my fellow villagers” said mom in all seriousness.  

             “It hurts me enough for the Myanmar soldiers’ repression.  Now, the green cladding soldiers, the SSPP/SSA, even brought other people to repress their fellow countrymen. It hurts me even more. People the whole country suffer tremendously. They suffer many times more than I did.  After several years, I thought thing would have taken a turn for the better, but it has not. I had a broken dream once, and I dare not dream again” said mom in a soften voice forcing us to pay a closer attention to her. I could not help but asking her further “What was your broken dream? What did you dream about?”

             “I had a broken dream when the MTA laid down their arms and surrendered to the Myanmar army. Our hope for a liberated Shan State was gone. Now, it is not worth it even to talk about restoring our nation, it is hard enough just to stand united. I dare not dream again. My only dim hope is at least, it will be peaceful there so people do not have to suffer. But I don’t know when.” Mom ended our conversation there since we had no idea who we could turn to for an answer. 

This is a translation of original Thai article https://transbordernews.in.th/home/?p=31539

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