A Capricorn, born in January 1975, BB is 32 this year. BB is the story of a man who has been a farmer, a fisherman, a monk, a mechanic, a rubber tapper, a welder, a waiter and a Cakoi seller (a kind of long fried doughnut sold usually by the roadside).
BB is tanned, short and stocky, and built like a boxer with muscular arms and shoulders. I am quite sure BB would not have known in his early years that he would have such a varied working history. He still remembers the exact date that changed everything. It was the 1990 General Elections in Myanmar. 27 th of May, to be exact. That was the day the ALD Party (Arakan League for Democracy) won a landslide victory in their state. And ALD was soon after made illegal by the military junta, its important members persecuted. Two of them, youth leaders, ran into the countryside, and a few days later, stumbled, malaria stricken and starving, onto the rice fields worked on by BB and his friends.
Unknown to BB, they ate whatever rice they could find in his hut, and continued running, only to be caught by the military soon after. And so, early next morning, the military came to their farm. Using sticks and rifle butts, seven soldiers set upon BB and his friend, who denied doing anything wrong. He still has a scar on his face, just above his right eye, and numerous scars on his right knee to drive home his point. They were then dragged to the military prison where they held, beaten and left to dry in the hot sun for a further 10 days. “the soldiers beat me until i was in a ‘drunken’ state” (mabuk), BB said. “I didn’t know what to say. If I said I didn’t know anything, they continued to beat me.”
Eventually, with the assurances and guarantees from the village headman and his parents, the military released him. After recovering from his wounds, he immediately enrolled in a monastery to become an apprentice for monk hood, an undertaking that would take him 5 years to master, and where he served for another 5 years. “I became a monk for safety. Monks are not beaten up, and monks are not told to do forced labour“, said BB. He knows about forced labour, because the army was expanding in his region and was building camps and barracks. He would be conscripted to “help” the army, 1 to 2 weeks at a time, and he would need to bring along rice and vegetables to feed himself – BB was conscripted a total of 7 times.
At the age of 25, he have up his monk robes and married. That was in April of 2000. He then moved to his in-laws house and worked their rice fields. The severe beating he received in 1990, however, left a permanent scar in his psyche. Slightly more than a year after his marriage, he told his wife that he can no longer stay in Myanmar. He feared the military too much. So in June of 2001, with his wife pregnant with their twin sons, he ran to Thailand, where he worked as a fisherman. He promised his wife he would send back money, and for a year and 4 months worked hard as a fisherman, earning 3,500 Baht a month. In that period, he could only manage to send back money once, because pay was low and inconsistent. Sometimes he would get paid, but sometimes he wouldn’t. He told me that he dare not ask for back pay because the owner had a gun.
And so, in May 2002, after saving enough money, he paid for a agent to bring him to Malaysia, where he ended up packing containers from 9am to 7pm six days a week for RM27 a day. After 3 months, he had saved RM1,000 to send back to his wife, only to be arrested by the police who took all this money and gave him back RM50.
Fearing police arrests, he moved to another part of KL where he started work in a workshop servicing lorries and buses. There he earned RM40 a day, and although it was hard physical work, he managed to send back RM400-RM500 every month back to his wife and twin sons. BB did this for 3 years. In 2005 he quit and moved to another workshop when his request for a raise of RM10/day was rejected. After this, he had a succession of jobs, all of which didn’t last for one reason or another. The new workshop didn’t pay his salary for 2 months, so he moved to a welding job in Putrajaya which he held for 1 year before all the workers were dismissed as a result of an industrial accident befalling one of their work colleagues. He worked for 6 months at a rubber plantation up north, where they only paid him for the first month. He came back to KL to work in a food court but business rivalry between two major groups led to trouble and fighting so he fled. He then travelled down south to Johor to work at a food stand selling cakois, only to be replaced when he took 3 days off to go to a UNHCR interview in KL. “My boss wasn’t willing to wait for me. When I came back after three days, he had already hired another worker to replace me.”
Now, having just been released from Pudu jail after 16 days in prison, he is unemployed, with no money, no clothes, and living at a community centre, depending on donations to be fed. (He was arrested because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, being in a shop that was being mobbed by drunkards in Selayang). He is much too scared to go back to Selayang after what happened.
He hasn’t contacted his wife for 2 years now. “Since 2005“, BB said. “Because I don’t have money to send back“. “I can’t go back. They have arrested my older brother (in Myanmar) who didn’t know he was fishing in restricted waters around the gas field. In fact, nobody knew it was restricted waters. Now he is in jail for 7 years.”
“I want to go back, but I cannot. Now my family has 2 criminal records. The military will find me. They will cause trouble. They know I have been overseas. People from Myanmar who go overseas without passports, when they go back, the government will treat us like non-nationals“.
“I will be in trouble“, BB tells me again.
For someone who has bravely been all over Malaysia in search of a job, who is adaptable enough to take on almost any job thrown at him, and who has learnt quite a bit of Malay and be able to speak it, he now seems strangely lost, shaken and afraid. It’s like all the fight and stuffing has been beaten out of him somehow by his latest encounter with the drunken mob and the police. I don’t know what the future lies for him now. I hope he will in time regain his spirit. This chunky, tanned man with the stern face but kind voice. It’s already turning into dusk as I write this, and selfishly, I feel thankful that the responsibility to care for him does not rest on my shoulders tonight.