“My daughter is at school. I want to send her money for her education. So one day she could become a teacher or a nurse. I want her to have a good life. A nice life”.
At 38, II has been away from his country for less than 2 years. In Arakan State where he hails from, he used to farm rice and tobacco in his village. I was sure he must have migrated for a very good reason. I mean, to leave behind a farm planted with rice and a cash crop. And at 38, I was quite sure that he would have already been married with children. What made him leave behind everything at such an age? His farm, his family, all that he had.
He ran away, he says, because “they came to look for new soldiers”. The military came and wanted to conscript 1 new soldier for every 10 houses. They were looking for men below the age of 40 and so he was a potential candidate. “So why did you run away”, I asked? “Tell him I don’t understand, because in Malaysia life as a soldier is not that bad” I told my interpreter. “Life in the military is very hard”, he explains. “It is very rough, very tough, and they torture and punish you. Many soldiers die in fighting elsewhere in Myanmar. Back then, conscription was only for a certain period of time, 10 or 16 years. Now it is for life. There is no freedom”.
And so, faced with the choice of a lifetime being away from his family, or running away, he chose the latter, traveling to Rangoon and then taking a boat to slip into Thailand. II tells of how for every 2 houses, 1 person ran away because of the conscription drive. He left behind his wife and daughter. His wife now sells traditional cakes to make a livelihood.
In Thailand, he held jobs at a factory, on a fishing boat and a prawn farm. Always he had to move jobs because they didn’t pay him. So eventually he decided to go to Malaysia, borrowing money from his nephew (already in Malaysia) and paying a broker who put him on a bus to Haadyai. There he was supposed to call another person, but at the bus station he was stopped and arrested by the Thai police. He spent 2.5 months in detention before being deported back to the Myanmar border. II had to borrow more money to pay his broker, who secured his release and then drove him all the way to Kuala Lumpur. He remembers hiding in the boot as they crossed the border. Unfortunately he couldn’t find work in Kuala Lumpur and so his nephew sent him to an Arakan community in one of the smaller towns in Malaysia. There he worked packing boxes for a short time before he left because he couldn’t stand the daily harassment he got from his co-workers.
It has now been 2 months, and he still hasn’t found work. He survives by charity from his friends. When I asked him what he wants for the future, his face turns solemn, and he looks down at the floor. “My daughter is at school. I want to send her money for her education. So one day she could become a teacher or a nurse. I want her to have a good life. A nice life”.