“This is the only way I can help my people.…This is my true duty”
Taang Penglam (not his real name) was in his final year at University, studying Chemistry, when he participated in the demonstrations of 1996. Shortly after, all the Universities in Myanmar were closed and he found himself on the run. As a result of his involvement, his father, a government official, was transferred and then forced to resign without pension. His smaller siblings were denied entry to university. And he himself was arrested. Penglam was tortured for 6 months before being sentenced to 6 years in the infamous Kalay prison.
“There was no medical treatment and there was not enough food. We had to do a lot of forced labour because the prison was new then. Many people died. My friends all tell me how lucky I am to be alive when they found out that I survived 6 years in Kalay prison.”
Soon after being discharged, he fled, first to Thailand and then to Malaysia. All those years in prison, and the torture, has left permanent effects on Penglam. He used to weight 60kg in college, but now he only weights 54kg has no appetite most of the time. He has difficulty sleeping, and he wakes up every morning with his heart pounding fast. His friends who used to know him during college are surprised at his change.
“In university he used to be a student leader. He was a very good speaker and very good at relations with people. Now so many things have changed. His face, his feelings, his voice…”
It was those very years spent in prison that has made Penglam who he is now. But his horrifying experience there has also made him closer to the people that he serves now. And it is what drives him on.
“I don’t want to resettle yet because I want to help my people. Some of my people are truly refugees. I know them. They are not economic migrants. I don’t care if my resettlement is delayed. Because if I don’t help them, nobody will help them. I know very well their situation and their difficulty. I myself suffered torture and difficulty. I don’t want them to suffer like me. If I was never in prison, I will never help these people, but I stayed in prison for 6 years. My village headman was killed by the military. I have been tortured. I worked under forced labour. I feel what they are feeling.”
Penglam goes on to give several examples. “Last week, one man was arrested. We went to the police station and managed to negotiate his release. He has just arrived the week before. He doesn’t know the language. If he goes to prison, I don’t know what will happen to him.” Or the time they transferred a hit and run accident victim to a shelter where he could recuperate and continue to get medical attention.
“I don’t have any money or degree. This is the only way I can help my people. I am very satisfied if I can help. This is my true duty.”