From the International Medical NGO Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders)


I grew up in Chin state in the west of Myanmar. Things were very difficult for my family because – like many people – we were frequently forced to work for the military. My parents had a small farm but it was hard to make a living. They were often made to work on military construction projects, so were not able to farm the land. People who refused to do military labour were arrested.

When I was about 15, we moved to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. I went to college there and started studying for a degree in psychology, but after two years the authorities closed the university down because of student demonstrations. When I found out that the Bible School offered some courses in counselling, I decided to continue my education there. The university opened again two years later and I considered going back, but in the end decided that it wasn’t actually worth it. I could see that many of my friends from the Chin ethnic group simply found it impossible to get a job, even with a degree.

There is a huge amount of discrimination against Chin people – if you are not from the Burmese ethnic group it is extremely difficult to have a career. You have to convert from Christianity to Buddhism if you want to move up.

In 2003, I became Youth Director at a church, doing community work and providing counselling for kids and young adults. The church was illegal in the eyes of the government and we had to be very careful. More and more Chin people started moving from Chin state to Yangon, so our community was growing all the time.

The problems started in 2004, when I took a group of kids on a camping trip to the countryside. One of the kids was run over by a military motorbike. The law says that if a pedestrian is hit by a vehicle, the driver has to pay the medical costs. When the military refused to pay, I wrote a letter to complain that nobody was taking responsibility. They almost arrested me. The Church Pastor advised me not to take things further because he was worried about the consequences for my safety. The military took my address in Yangon, but let me go home.

The following year, I wanted to run a residential activity camp for kids in the church. The Church leaders were worried, because they knew that the military were watching the building.

On the second day of the camp, I went out shopping to get some supplies. Whilst I was out, the military raided the building and arrested the Church Pastor and four others. Somebody managed to call me and tell me what had happened. They told me to hide, because the military knew that I was involved and had my address. I hid at a friend’s place for a week, during which time the military went to my family home and threatened my mum.

I just didn’t know what to do. If I turned myself in, I could face a lifetime in jail. But I felt extremely worried for the others that were still in custody.

I went to the Senior Pastor for advice. He said that he would negotiate to get the others out, but that I should flee the country. I phoned my mum – she was crying all the time and couldn’t really say much, but she knew that the best thing would be for me to leave.

I went to the lorry depot, found someone who was driving to the south of Myanmar and paid him to let me hide in the back. It was terrible. The journey lasted four days. I took nothing with me except the clothes I was wearing. I couldn’t even take an ID card, in case I got caught.

We arrived at the Thai border in the middle of the night. I found an agent – people who make a lot of money by smuggling refugees across borders and he agreed that he would help me at a price of 700 US dollars. I didn’t have enough money with me, so I called my parents and they sent the money through the bank.

There was a group of about 7 of us trying to get into Malaysia – all from Myanmar. We walked for four hours through the jungle to cross the border, and were then taken by boat to a place where we waited for about four days. Finally, we were put in a car and driven straight to Kuala Lumpur. They dropped me off here, in the centre of town, very close to a community centre that has been set up by a group of Chin refugees.

The Chin refugees in Malaysia are a very close community and we help each other. At first, a friend let me sleep in his living room. Now I have a room.

I found work at a restaurant, earning 3 Ringgit an hour. I worked for about 10 hours a day, most days a week, so made about 700 Ringgit a month. That’s less than half what a Malaysian would earn for doing the same job.

After that I started teaching Chin refugee kids, who are not allowed to go to school in Malaysia. Many of them were just sitting inside all day doing nothing, so we rented a flat and set up a small school. I taught Maths, English and the Chin language. We had about 60 kids back then in 2005 – now there are about 300!

Now I spend most of my time working for the Chin Refugee Committee as a volunteer community worker. Many people are not registered with UNHCR – the UN organisation responsible for ensuring the welfare of refugees. The Malaysian government has put a limit on the number of refugees that UNHCR are allowed to register as refugees, so registration has been extremely difficult since the beginning of 2006.

This puts many people in a dangerous situation. Many don’t go to the public hospitals because they don’t have any documents and are scared of being reported to the police. In emergency situations, I have to act as a go-between to get the paperwork for them. If someone needs urgent medical care, we have to get a letter from one of the doctors working for a charity such as MSF or ACTS, take that to UNHCR, and get a letter from them confirming that the patient is a “person of concern”.

The other very big worry is that people without documents – and sometimes even people who do have documents – can get arrested and put in detention centres and even prison. That’s what happened to me last October.

At 2 o’clock in the morning, when we were all asleep, there was a bang on the door. We were being raided by the police. They made us all go outside into the car park, where they had gathered together all the foreign people found during a number of raids around the neighbourhood. Then they checked if we had documents – about 40 out of the 400 people there didn’t.

They put those of us without documents into a vehicle and took us to a detention centre about three hours outside Kuala Lumpur. We were only allowed to take our shirts and trousers inside, and didn’t have contact with anyone for two weeks.

There were about 400 people sleeping on the floor of a hall. We didn’t have mats and it was extremely crowded. There were only four toilets and four showers for that number of people. For me, the worst thing was not being allowed to have a toothbrush for 14 days! We were given terrible food: just rice with some old fish and no vegetables.

Eventually we were taken before a judge, but there was no interpreter from Malay to Burmese. I said that we could just speak in English, but the judge refused. We were given a court date for a month’s time, and told we would have to go to a criminal prison in the meantime.

The prison was a whole different experience – there was a very different type of person in there compared to the detention centre, including drug addicts and murderers.

There were 10 people in each room and we had to sleep on the floor. My friend got very sick, but when we asked the guards to see a doctor they at first refused. We spent a whole night on the floor, with him very ill with a high fever. Later he did see a doctor and was given treatment for malaria.

When we went to court a month later I pled guilty. UNHCR told me not to, but I just couldn’t say in the jail any longer. My health had deteriorated – I had a very bad cough and a numb leg. I couldn’t sleep. I knew that if I pled guilty they would deport me, so at least I would get out. If I pled not guilty, I might be in there for a long time.

On 29 December, I was deported to the Thai border along with about 80 other people, 15 of them Chins. The immigration officers just dropped us in the jungle.

There were human trafficking agents already waiting there. I told everyone to stick close together because I have heard stories about what these agents do to people who have no money. Men can be sold as slaves into the fishing trade and women can be sexually molested.

The agents asked us who could pay to be taken back into Malaysia. I called the Chin Refugee Committee on the phone and they agreed to pay for seven of us to be brought back to Kuala Lumpur, at the cost of 1,500 Ringgit each. We were put in a car and driven back to exactly the same place where I had arrived almost two years before.