The journey from Myanmar to Malaysia took 5 days.  Lia Neino (not her real name) undertook this journey with her mother and bigger sister. As I was getting the story of the crossing from the mother, i turned to her and asked if she remembers it.  Lia nods, and says “I was afraid and I was very hungry. We eat only once a day”.

Lia comes across as a shy little girl. She spoke little, and when she did, more often than not she would be looking down and drawing imaginary circles on the table with her right index finger at the same time. I get glimpses of what she does and likes. She prefers the food here, and likes fish and vegetables.  Lia says she prefers it here because she can stay with her dad and the whole family. She has a few friends here – children that she meets every Sunday at church. She says her best friends are Bethany, and Siah Siah, and Jen Jen.

Do you have any friends at home? I enquired.  Lia shakes her head. No. Even though they share an apartment with 16 other Myanmarese refugees, none of them are in her age group. She has 1 doll that she plays with, and she watches TV. Her favourite program is “Mr Bean”.

Her mother adds “Sometimes I cut out puzzles, and I teach her how to read and write the Zo language. Sometimes we play snakes and ladders, and sometimes I tell her stories.”

“But I’m bored staying at home. I want to go to Jusco and ride a car,” referring to a shopping complex which has small coin operated cars for children.

She doesn’t get to go out often, because her mother is afraid that they will be arrested. The family went out to the KLCC shopping centre 4 months ago but “police in yellow hats were asking people about their ID and passport. I was so afraid. I heard that RELA will still arrest you even if you have a UNHCR card.” They have not been to a shopping centre since.

When she grows up, Lia wants to be a doctor. “I pity sick people. That’s why I want to give treatment to them”. According to her mother, Lia is not the quiet, shy person in front of me now. “She is very talkative. She is open and frank. The elder sister does what I tell her to, but she is always saying “why are you asking me to do this? She is like me,” the mother says, smiling.




Taang Thangho and Taang Liando (not their real names) are brothers. Thangbo is 7, whilst his elder brother is 9. There are the lucky ones. With about 15 others, Thangbo and Liando goes to school run by an NGO in Malaysia. They get picked up everyday and driven back. It soon becomes quite apparent that Thangbo is the spokesman of the two. More outgoing and friendly, unlike his more reserved brother, he answered most of the questions, talking freely and confidently.

When asked about what he likes at school, Thangbo says “I only like playing. We play with toy guns, and then we play baking cakes.” Liando agrees. They learn English and Maths too, but Liando says that “I only like English. I don’t like Maths“.

School ends at 1.30 pm, and I ask them what they do after school. I study“, Liando says, and out of the corner of my eye I see his mom smile. Thangbo, on the other hand, was more frank. I watch TV. If mom asks, then I study.”

What else do you do? We fight. But we don’t really fight, we just act. Whenever we wrestle I win. When my brother tries to pin me down, I use my legs to struggle and win. When my brother grabs me, I use my nails.” It really reminded me of the time I supposedly bit my brother on the back when I was small. I don’t remember it at all, but my brother has the scar to prove it.

After school, they play all the time,” their mother adds. I have to ask them to study. They are similar but they are different as well. Liando is quiet, calm, and right handed. Thangbo is very friendly, very energetic and left handed.”

Since they wrestle all the time, I teased them by asking who cries more. We don’t cry. Only mom does“, Thangbo said.

I looked at the mother. “Is that true?” She nods.

They both look like their father. Whenever I see my boys, they remind me so much of their father. I feel so lonely. I miss him very much. When I see the boys talk to older people, they act so much like their father. I miss him in every way.” Their father was forced to become a porter for the army. That was seven years ago. He never came back“, said their mother.

This family just recently came to Malaysia. Prosecuted because of their Christian belief, the mother’s book shop was shut down, the kids were denied entry to school, neighbours ostracised them, and their house was pelted with stones.

But at least for Thangbo, who loves ice cream (any kind) and want to be a soldier and a missionary because a soldier fights bad guys, and Liando who loves fried fish and wants to become an engineer and a missionary because he loves to build, life in Malaysia has some semblance of normality.



And what is your favourite food, I turn to Lia Mauzuang (not her real name) after asking her 7 year old sister the same question. Smiling, she says “KFC!” (Kentucky Fried Chicken). Hot and Spicy or Original? “Spicy”. Mauzuang, a 15 year old girl, seems like your typical teenager. Everyday, she reads, cooks, watches TV and plays music. “Sometimes I dance”, she says, smiling. Mauzuang likes Britney Spears – “all of the songs” – and Jennifer Lopez. She loves playing the piano too, something that she picked up in Malaysia. Every Sunday they go to church and if she goes there early, she gets to practice and play on the piano. She’s made two friends at Church – an 18 year old girl and a 17 year old boy – the one who teaches her the piano.

She loves the shopping malls and she loves Malaysian food, especially Chinese food. Her favorites are noodles with gravy and Hokkien mee. Together with her family, she gets to eat out once every 2 months. Because she cannot go to school in Malaysia, she spends her time studying the bible, reading newspapers, and learning English and Malay from books.

Later, when I was asking her mother about the differences between RA and her smaller sister, I got to know that unlike her sister, she is not so open, preferring to keep things to herself. “She bears her burden alone. Sometimes I see her cry and when I ask, she says that “at this time my friends are studying in Myanmar. I am here alone. I miss my country and my friends and my cousins and my grandmother””

But Mauzuang says that she prefers to stay in Malaysia because “I can stay together with daddy. Life here is easier and food here is nicer.” Together with her mom and sister, Mauzuang was finally reunited with her father when they all made the dangerous crossing from Myanmar into Malaysia two years ago. They were separated in 2000 when her father, a Christian minister, fled to Malaysia to escape religious prosecution.


“It is not the facilities that I like, but the feeling of freedom in my heart”

Taang Haangsaai (not his real name) is one of the lucky ones. He was resettled to Melbourne about four months ago. Haangsaai actually wanted to delay his resettlement because being a community leader here in Malaysia, he wanted to stay on to help his people – the Zomi from Myanmar. Only the threat that his delay would affect the future resettlement of his people made him reconsider and fly off a week after he was originally supposed to go.

But now, only four months later, he is back in Malaysia, visiting his people to give them encouragement, “especially“, he says, “those living in jungle camps“. Having visited these camps, I would have to agree. I tell them that we have to be patient and we should never give up hope.” He’s also planning on popping by at the UNHCR to thank them for all their assistance.

As I got to know a bit about his story, his advice of patience and hope is not far from his own story. Haangsaai applied for refugee status back in 2001. It was rejected. He appealed, but before he could be re-interviewed, he was arrested, put in detention and eventually deported to Thailand. Haangsaai managed to get back to Malaysia and had his re-interview, only to be arrested again, this time in 2003. Pleading not guilty, he was nevertheless sentenced to 2 whips of the cane and 8 months in prison. He was then sent to Semenyih Detention centre, the start of a 3 year ordeal where he resisted deportation, choosing instead to stay put and fight the system. Haangsaai wrote many letters to the UNCHR, was visited, interviewed, rejected again, had his file reopened, and finally, at the end of 2005, his application was finally accepted. Haangsaai had spent 3 long years in Semenyih detention centre. At one point, he was sick for more than half a year, losing weight, losing hope, losing spirit. Eventually hospitalised, he got better, and fought on.

Now he lives in Melbourne in a house with his friends. He gets an allowance of AUD420 every fortnight, which he says is “just enough“. The resettlement company paid for the deposit on the house he rented, and then furnished it. It is basicHaangsaai says, “but useful“. Haangsaai attends English classes free of charge, and later on, he can enroll in other courses to learn a skill and have some sort of certification – also free. At the end of the year, Haangsaai plans to enrol for the citizenship course, and later on, apply for Australian citizenship.

People here are very nice. You know, we are treated in our own country like slaves. Australian people are very good. Even the teenagers – sometimes they look wild, but when we say hi, they speak to us very nicely. People here are very friendly. Especially in the bus (which Haangsaai takes to go to his English course). The bus drivers greet everybody. They say hello, hi, and g’day mate. They chat to everyone. I’m trying to get into these habits because I know my face is not smiling!”

But having been persecuted in his home country and imprisoned and detained in Malaysia, Haangsaai feels something else even more precious in Australia.

When I got to Melbourne, I feel I possess my freedom. I am a free man. No one can torture me or suppress me. It is not the facilities that I like, but the feeling of freedom in my heart“.


“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…” (more…)


My husband died of AIDS in 2003. When we went to the hospital, the doctor told me to take the test as well. I found out I am HIV positive.”

“With the help of one of the hospital staff, I got in touch with others with the same problem and we set up an NGO called PHLA – People Living with HIV AIDS. Because we were so isolated and neglected, even by our family members. They eat separately from us. They have different drinking water. They don’t even want to sleep in the same room with us. We found out that HIV is not so easy to get. So we want to tell people.”

“I am already infected. Before I fall sick, I want to educate people.

Pi Sielcing (not her real name) also complained to the District Office about the lack of free care and medicine for HIV patients. She thinks it was because of this that she found herself in trouble with the authorities.

One day, after a meeting with her organisation, she came back to find a letter from the Local Council.

They told me that you should move. You should not stay here in this village.”

They following night, some people threw stones at her house, shouting that if she doesn’t leave, the police and government will come. (more…)


Taang Namtal is an 18 year old Zomi boy. He comes from a village that is so small that it doesn’t have a high school. So Namtal schools at the nearest town. During weekends, he would walk the whole day to get back to his village. One Saturday, on his way back, he was stopped by soldiers who took him to the nearby army camp. They wanted him to become a soldier.

But I don’t want to become a soldier. They were forcing me to do it.”

“So what do you want to be then”, I asked?

I want to study. I want to study science. I want to become an engineer. I like construction“.

So one day, when the soldiers on guard duty was drunk, BA escaped and ran to his uncle’s house. His uncle sent him straight to Rangoon to stay with his auntie.

I only knew her name but not her address.”

For 3 days Namtal slept at the railway station, looking for people that looked like Zoomi to ask for help. (more…)

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