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The International Writers Magazine: Refugees in their own words

Shan Refugees in Malaysia (Parts 2 & 3)
Antonio Graceffo
For many of the Shan, suffering inside of Burma, escaping to Malaysia would be an unobtainable dream

shan kids

‘I was taken in a truck, by a driver with a gun. The man was chewing Kratom leaves (a stimulant). There were twelve of us in the back of the van. Not all were Shan. Some were Arakan or Mon (two ethnic minorities in Brma). The driver was Thai. It took two days three nights to get here (Malaysia). At that time it cost 1,800 Ringit. ($592 USD).” Hsai Khun, (not his real name), was telling me the story of how he came to be a Shan refugee in Malaysia.
“When we go, the agent he will ask, which way do you want to go? The more we pay, the more comfortable the ride.” He continued.

Five hundred dollars could be several year’s wages for a poor Shan farmer, living in Burma. Unfortunately the price freedom has increased.
“Now we pay 37,000 Baht. (more than $1,000 USD).”

For many of the Shan, suffering inside of Burma, escaping to Malaysia would be an unobtainable dream. But it is only the first, in a long sequence of steps toward resettlement in a free country. After arriving in Malaysia, the Shan should obtain a community ID card, then register with UNHCR. Sadly, very few of the Shan refugees in Malaysia get this far, however.
“We cannot get UNHCR for everyone.” The Shan community leader explained.  “We have about 5,000-6000 Shan refugees in Malaysia. Only 1,500 are registered with the UNHCR. Four thousand have our community ID card.” He went on to say that he hasn’t been able to help as many Shan as he would like. “Many people don’t know that we have an office.”
“UNHCR only does registration once per year. Last year about 400 registered, but less than 200 were recognized and issued cards by UNHCR.”

At that rate, to register all of the 6,000 Shan in Malaysia would take 30 years. Of course, as the war and the genocide in Burma continue, the refugees will keep coming.
“They come in day by day. Everyday, more people come and don’t know to register with us.”
“Some people come to Malaysia, but they are afraid to come here and register because they are afraid of getting arrested.”
Switching gears I asked about Shan families and children. As far as I knew, most of the refugees were men.
“There are some children here. Some people come with their families. There is a school for them in the refugee center, but not many. We only have about six or seven students. The parents send them here to learn, then, later, when they can read and write, they go out and new people come. They are coming and going. Many come and learn for a few months and then go away.” Explained the leader. “The new arrivals sometimes leave their children at the school. They study and sleep there, and the teacher takes care of them. Upstairs from the school is a Thai prayer room with a Thai monk. The Monk also helps teach classes. We only accept very young children. They must be under 18. If they are 19 and want to learn, maybe we can accept them. Most who come are men. Even the children are fifteen or sixteen which means they can work and make money already.”
Many of the refugees, even at age sixteen have never attended school.
“One of our kids is 12 and one 16. And they don’t even know how to read and write. So, they stay in our school hostel. We educate them in English.  UNHCR gives some support, and they also provide teacher training. So some of our refugees who have some education already, go for teacher’s training. We have two Shan who have been through teacher training, and they help us to be self-sufficient. We have one volunteer foreign teacher, from England, who teaches English. And the Monk also helps us a lot with teaching.”

“The government doesn’t allow the refugees to go to school. Since 2010, the government has given us an opportunity. There is one private school which will accept refugee children, but we must have the UNHCR card, and we need to pay the school fees.” It costs 60 Ringit a month school fees and 60 Ringits bus fees. “Most refugees can’t pay it though.”
I asked if he had a family.
“I was already married in Burma. Then I sent for my wife and two children.  I already had the experience of hiding in the car, so I knew to pay more to bring my family here so they could come comfortably and safely.”
“Will you get resettled?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I have refugee status now.”

I asked about the election in Burma.
“They selected a military man to be the ruler of Burma.” Explained one refugee, a college graduate, now working part time in a restaurant. “This is not an election, this is a selection. They chose their own people and changed the name, and called it an election.”

Burmese exiles in other countries told me that they were surprised to find out that their votes had been cast, on their behalf, either at the embassy or back in their home village, without their knowledge. And of course, those votes went in support of the SPDC. “Maybe you voted for the junta and don’t know it.” I suggested.
With little or no hope on the political front, talk drifted to the war.
“I think they are going to attack all of the rebels.” Explained a man who had recently been notified that he would be resettled. He still kept his eyes on Burma, although, hopefully, he would soon be going to a land of freedom. “Now there is a lot of fighting in Shan State, and people are running away. The army has taken all of the property of the Shan. I think hard times are coming to Shan State.”
“The junta have big weapons. The rebels have small weapons. What can they do?” asked another man. He had recently married a Shan refugee woman, and now the two eked out an uncertain living with their part time work.

All of the refugees were in agreement that they didn’t want to go back to Burma. But the subject of Thailand came up a lot. There are thought to be between one and two million Shan in Thailand.
“Kuala Lumpur is better than Thailand. At least we can get recognized by UNHCR here.” Explained the newlywed. “Even though only a few of us get recognized, it is still better than Thailand. In Thailand UNHCR doesn’t recognize Shan. They say Shan and Thai are the same ethnic. But security here is worse.”
All of the men agreed that security, meaning getting arrested, was their biggest concern.

Earlier, one of the refugees, a youtube fan, had recognized me from my Burma videos. Now, several men commented on the fact that they had watched me in Martial Arts Odyssey. Now, they were ready to talk. The Youtube fan asked me, “Do you know about a school for human rights?”

In my experience, somehow, the minute a young Shan person learns English, they go online and learn about Human Rights. I have worked with and reported on tribes and ethnic minorities across Asia, but I have honestly never met a people like the Shan. My opinion is probably biased by the fact that I am mostly meeting very intelligent people, rather than a fair cross section of the population. But, the fact still remains that I have never encountered this phenomena in other ethnic groups. The Shan seem incredibly adept at learning English and then actually putting it to use, informing themselves about world events, world history, and subjects relevant to their struggle. Nearly every English speaking Shan I have ever worked with or interviewed could intelligently about Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, the Dali Lama, and even Martin Luther King and Ho Chi Minh.

Maybe the Burmese government is right for blocking the internet and stopping education in Shanland. I couldn’t imagine what an entire generation of educated Shan could do to the junta.
“In Burma I didn’t know about Human Rights. I heard that first in Malaysia.” The youtube man told me. “Back in Burma, we live like blind.  They close the door on information. They block our way, and don’t let us know about human rights.”

Talking to refugees is often a somber experience, but in this case, I was smiling inside, almost crying as his youthful enthusiasm and the simple correctness of what he was saying infected me. He was like many of the Shan I had known when was embedded with the Shan Army. They were bright, intelligent young people, who, had always suspected something had been stolen from them. The minute the learned English and gained access to a computer, they confirmed their suspicions and then educated themselves on what it was exactly they had been robbed of.
“My friend worked for an NGO. He told me about human rights. I think human rights are very high intelligence. I feel so proud about that.”
His next statement was so perfect
“Human rights are very nice.”
Yes, I agreed, human rights are nice.


“In the history books in Burma they change everything. If they can change history it’s not HISTORY. It is THEIR story.” Burmese refugee in Malaysia.

“The first time I came to Malaysia I see the Malaysia is very freedom. You want to go somewhere you can go, no one block your way.” Said a Shan refugee who was a fan of Martial Arts Odyssey, my web TV show. “My country is not like that. After 9 pm, you cannot go out of the house. If the military saw you on the road they would beat you up, they would beat you. When I was young, staying with my family in my home town I didn’t know about the information that military is beating the people and killing them, burning our farms. I didn’t know. The information is blocked.When I came outside I have freedom of information. We get to know everything they are doing to us.
“Before I came to Malaysia I didn’t know about internet. We didn’t know anything in Burma. I came here, and I saw even a small baby can use internet. They are professional already. They are higher than me, higher than us. It is better here than Burma. Even though we are refugees here, we have more rights than in our home town. But we also don’t want to move our home town.”

This was an important point, which I had only recently come to understand.  Shan people are fleeing Burma in droves. They go to Thailand, or in this case, Malaysia. But this is not what they want. What most of them want is for the fighting in Burma to stop. While they may openly dream of resettlement in the US or Australia, what they all told me, when they revealed their hearts, was that they just want to go back to a free and democratic Burma.
That is what this man meant, when he said, “But we also don’t want to move our home town.” He still wished he could live in his home town, but life there is simply untenable.
“Our Shan culture is that we don’t want to go to a foreign country. If we had a choice we would go back to Burma. So many only stay here four or five years, and then they go back. In our country is the military law. The blocked skype, facebook, and information. They have bad policy no human rights. Everything under control.”

I asked if they had SPDC government spies here in Malaysia?

“Yes, we do. But we don’t know who. It could be anyone. It could be our best friend. We don’t know about their secrets... intelligence. They know everything we are doing. But they also cannot do anything. They can only get information and send back to Burma. But if they plan to do something we also don’t know.”

He told me that he had studied at university in Burma. “But we didn’t learn Shan history. I didn’t get to know our history till now. They don’t have it in the student books in Burma. In the history books in Burma they change everything. If they can change history it is not history. It is their story. So we don’t know our history we only know Burmese history. I couldn’t write in Shan. I learned here in Malaysia. In Burma they didn’t allow us to teach Shan writing. But we could sometimes learn the reading from Shan karaoke. They replaced all of our history with Burmese culture. In Malaysia we have a big celebration for Shan New Year, in central KL. We started in 2006 and we have every year. In Burma Shan New Year was outlawed.”

“One group of Shan in Burma have forgotten their language. The government prevented them from learning holidays, language, and culture. They have become Burmese already. They can speak properly Burmese, so they are like Burmese already. But they know their parents and grandparents were Shan.  They know they are Shan, but they don’t know anything about Shan. Can you imagine you cannot do your Shan New Year. It is celebrated according to Shan calendar, usually in November. And then the religious New Year is the same as Thailand (Song Kran) usually in April. We also call that New Year.”

Historically, the Shan and the Thai have been closely related. They share some culture and their festivals. But, it is important to remember that the Shan and the Thai are two unique peoples. And, the Shan should be recognized as an ethnic group, by the UN and other international organizations.

One of the other refugees told me that he had married a Shan refugee locally. They had a baby, but the baby’s birth was registered by the immigration department. He has a birth certificate, but the baby can’t be considered a Malaysian citizen. I told him it was sad that his baby can’t be a Malay citizen. Refugee babies born in America are considered US citizens.
“We have no choice. We have a lot of struggle.”
When I asked what the biggest problem faced by refugees in Malaysia was, he answered, “The most challenging is security.” By security, he meant that the refugees get arrested by the Malaysian police on a regular basis.

As much as the refugees are struggling to survive, they continue to do what they can to further the cause of human rights inside of Burma, and to let the world know what the Shan people are suffering.

“In 1990s we submitted photos and documents of genocide.” (to the UN) “Last year again, in central Burma, the government attacked and destroyed all of the villages. And the innocent people suffer. They have farmland.” (The villagers) “It belonged to their ancestors, their forefathers, but Burmese government took it away easily. They say will build a railway or a road so they confiscated the Shan land.”

Large scale infrastructure projects in Burma generally lead, not only to land seizure, but to forced labor. Villages are threatened with death if they do not provide a certain number of workers. Many of those workers are never seen again. In numerous interviews I have done with refugees subjected to forced labor, they all reported having been beaten, tortured, starved, and often raped or they witnessed killings. Often, the forced laborers are used as human mine detectors, being pushed into the mine fields, ahead of the construction project.
I asked my new friend if he had a final message he wanted to send out to the world.

“For the Shan people what I want to say now, the situation is very bad. We are under the control of the Burmese military. When the Burmese army comes, they (the Shan people) are very afraid. They cannot do anything.  They cannot depend on the Shan army to protect them. Example, when the Burmese army comes, the Shan army has to run away. So they cannot do anything. So many girls were raped or taken away. Hard times for Shan people. Even though we have the Shan army, we don’t know when we will get freedom.”
“The world must know about this and the world should put pressure on the Burmese government. If we are still under the Burmese military, our rights …we have no human rights.”

Shan Refugees in Malaysia (Part 1)
Antonio Graceffo
For seven days, they were locked in a container, traveling in the back of a truck, With no idea where they were going, they may just as well have been sold into slavery

Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website,
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.


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