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“Before leaving, I told my wife not to worry. I told her that if I find work I will send money back. But it has been five months and I haven’t been able to earn enough to send any money back”.

At 39, GG is one of the older refugees from Myanmar, and like some of the other Arakans his age, he doesn’t remember his age, or when he was born. We had to look at his registration card to know that he was born in October of 1968.

GG is tall and thin, with curly hair and a signs of a receding hairline. He talks animatedly, his language fast, fluent and unbroken. Most of the people from his state are much younger, often fleeing forced labour and conscription into the army, so I wonder what brought him here.

Not knowing our calender, he struggles to tell us the month and day, but we managed to pin the year and season down – 1993, during the dry season, after they had harvested the rice. That was when the Secretary for Land came to his village to check land ownership. So he told everyone to give him their land deeds so he could check them. But there was a reason behind that. The military wanted to build a new base and thus wanted land. So the Secretary for Land told the head of the village that some of the land will be confiscated by the Government for this purpose. He then left, taking the land deeds with him. It was shocking news for the villagers. Some wept. Some got very angry but there was nothing they could do. The next day, nobody went to work – everybody was in a state of shock.

That was the day GG’s family lost all their land. GG’s father owned about 10 acres, handed down to him by his father. GG and his brothers and sisters worked the land, growing rice during the rainy season and letting it grow fallow during the dry for the cows and buffaloes to graze on. Now they were no longer the owners of their own land, but the cows and buffaloes, accustomed to grazing in that area, kept going back. They were fined each time a cow or buffalo strayed into their former land now owned by the military, and after about a year or so, his family decided to sell all of their animals and divide the money between them. That was how his family split up. Other families split up as well as a consequence of the land confiscation – almost one in five people eventually left his village because of this.

Two of his siblings bought land to farm, but it was much much further away. It takes them a whole day’s walk just to get there, so in order to work the land, they had to bring provisions and camp there for a week before coming back home again. One of his brothers, totally disillusioned by the land confiscation joined a monastery where he is a monk to this day. GG was afraid that if he bought land, that too would be taken away from him someday. If not in his lifetime, maybe in his son’s and daughter’s time. So he decided to settle down in a nearby town and open a grocery shop. Business was OK in the first year, but after that, he slowly lost money as people didn’t have any work and always bought on credit. Finally he had to sell his grocery shop and for a few years tried to make ends meet by building wooden houses for other people. Work was very intermittent, so his wife had to sell lottery tickets to feed their son and daughter.

One day whilst helping an owner build a house, the police and local council came, demanding to see his license and building permits. They didn’t have any. A few days later he got news that the house owner has been arrested. That was when he decided to flee into Thailand. He worked a multitude of jobs in Thailand, but he always had to move after a few months because of insecurity.

Thus, he moved toMalaysia, where he looked for a job for almost a month before finding intermittent work with a contractor in one of the smaller towns. If he has work, he earns RM28 a day.

“Before leaving, I told my wife not to worry. I told her that if I find work I will send money back. But it has been five months and I haven’t been able to earn enough to send any money back”.

“I called her during the Buddhist new year in April. She says life is very difficult. She wants to come here with the children, to be with me, but I told her that it is still too dangerous”.

GG tells me the story of a raid by RELA at dawn in one of the construction sites. He saw people with torchlights coming, so he woke his friends up and they all ran away. He tells of how he threw away his shirt and crawled into a bush, shaking with fear as RELA members passed just inches away.

“You know”, he told me, “Before the military came in 1993, I lived my whole life in my village. I liked my life as a farmer. It was peaceful and we always had enough rice to eat. If they had not taken our land, I would still be a farmer”.

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