Gill Thackray is an exiled Yorkshirewoman, business psychologist and Director of Koru Development. She has lived and worked in Thailand, Tibet, China and Poland. She regularly writes articles for a variety of publications on psychology. She is currently working on her first novel.
“Hlaing means plenty” she informed me without irony “I had plenty of protection in the jungle. A bullet missed me by this much.” She demonstrated just how little ‘This much’ signified by inhaling deeply, pursing her lips whilst emitting a short, high pitched whistle, simultaneously rolling up her sleeve. Her bare arm revealed a dark brown indentation at the top of her shoulder. “He was a shit shot. I got him” she concluded. Freedom fighter or anti government insurgent, on either side of the political fence, Hlaing was most definitely a dangerous woman.
I met Hlaing by accident. I’d been working for a small NGO in Tak Province along the trekking trail in western Thailand. The NGO was run by a profoundly religious, elderly British couple. They informed me one morning over breakfast that she would be making a solo trip to the UK for a number of weeks. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for you to stay here on your own with the man of the house. What would people think?” she said with the utmost concern as he sat beside her mutely concurring. His head moved up and down in agreement, a wisp of white hair waving in unison. It took a few moments to register the subtext of ‘appropriate’. Ah. Despite the forty year age gap between myself and the ‘Man of the house’ apparently I was deemed too dangerous to stay for the duration of his wife’s trip. Hlaing presented a danger by refusing to conform, refusing to submit, by fighting for her basic freedom. I on the other hand presented a far more pedestrian threat simply by virtue of being single and female. “We thought that perhaps you could go and work in the camp?”
I suppressed a smile that evening when she held aloft a jar of local Prik brand chilli paste and enquired “Would you like Prik with your dinner?” That question had already been silently answered. Yes, they had decided. As a single woman, I definitely DID want prik and any old prick to boot. And that was how I came to be working in Mae La.
The largest of several United Nations refugee camps buried within the folds of Thailand’s border hills, Mae La had become a small town in its own right. Just over the border, separated by jungle and the Thaunggin river, was Burma. A country under the oppression of a military junta. The camp reflected the lives of those inside. Tolerated by the authorities, but barely. Mae La was no man’s land populated by those fleeing the violence across the water. Originally intended as a temporary place of refuge in the early 80s for ethnic Karen fleeing persecution, thirty years later it remained. The camp was populated by displaced ethnic groups escaping the conflict. Making their way over the border daily were ethnic Mon, Kachin, Karenni and Shan diaspora seeking safety.
In a country were respect is everything, the camp presented a paradox. The Thai play the national anthem in cinemas to a backdrop of a photograph of the king. Audiences are required to stand. And they do. Shirkers are shamed into it. Bowing is still practiced as a mark of deference to elders and perceived ‘betters’. Losing your temper or showing displeasure means losing huge face. Losing face renders you persona non grata. It is the quickest way to guarantee that you do not get what you want. This is the Thai way. Respect is woven into the fabric of Thai culture. But still, refugees are afforded little or none. The camps represent a shameful underbelly. A PR nightmare. An inconvenient, juxtaposition alongside images of idyllic golden beaches and worthy conservation projects. The camp’s population are hidden from the rest of the world by politics, the mountains providing a convenient cloak of invisibility.
We met by chance. At night, in the camp, everyone would sit under their teak leaf roofs whilst the light from the generator lasted. It was monsoon. Plump drops of warm rain fell heavily through the leaves intermittently, bouncing off the floor to a soundtrack of Stairway to heaven played over and over again on an old battery powered tape recorder. Entertainment for the evening. “You’re the English woman” she’d said walking over to me and smiling. She told me that she’d been visiting a friend and wanted to practice her English. We sat and talked. “You look like a ghost with those blue eyes and that hair.” she reached over and pressed my curls between her thumb and forefinger, finally deciding “Like clouds.” We talked about England as she fired question after question about where I was from, David Beckham’s ‘Yellow hair’ and old TV shows from the US. Eventually the only thing left to do was join Led Zeppelin in their finale before the generator ran out of diesel, giving up the ghost for the night.
Hlaing was old enough to remember life in Burma, the destruction of villages, forced labour, the burning and beheading of friends and family. Most of the young people I worked with in Mae La had only known life in the camps along the border. Those born there were stateless. Not Thai. Not Burmese. No state meant no papers. No papers meant no freedom of movement or work outside the camp. So I was surprised when, a few weeks later I met Hlaing in Mae Sot, fabled locally as the place where only CIA personnel who had done something utterly unforgivable were sent. A palpably nefarious town at the centre of the Golden Triangle, notorious for opening it’s arms to welcome those wishing to profit from human traffic, illegal teak, drugs, corruption and general misery per se.
“Hey English Therammu!” she’d shouted across the dusty street to me, smiling widely. “Stairway to Heaven!” Hlaing, was an anomaly, seemingly going wherever she pleased. The only Karen I had met with papers had bought them through a series of complicated meetings with elders and officials, large sums of money crossing hands along the way. They also usually had some kind of involvement with the Karen National Liberation Army. Hlaing didn’t fit that profile. A tiny woman in her early thirties, hair scraped into a pony tail, choosing trousers and a sweater over the traditional hand-woven Karen skirt and top. Hlaing moved almost invisibly around the town. I had barely registered her presence until she called over. We walked together to a small shaded cafe on the edge of town, ordering banana pancakes. Huge, spongy circles swollen with warm oozing bananas. I hadn’t seen them anywhere else. Hlaing assured me they were the best
breakfast for miles around even though it was long after midday. She was right. “You not married?” she asked. I shook my head. “How old?”
“Thirty three” I answered.
“Me too.” she laughed “And me neither. Thirty three and not married? In Karen culture, not married by now, never married.” We both laughed.
“I heard that at twenty five too. When I worked in Poland.” I informed her as we gorged ourselves on the thick, stodgy pancakes. She rolled her eyes and ate another forkful.
“You need to be careful here on your own.” she warned me.
“But you’re here?”
“I can look after myself. I’m Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).”
I could barely disguise my surprise. The KNLA was the military wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) the Karen political body. She was the first and only female member of the army that I had met. I’d been introduced to KNLA Generals, their sons and soldiers. I had listened to their stories in the camp, filling notebook after notebook at night with their stories. Nobody had ever mentioned a woman fighting with the KNLA. Hlaing could not have looked less dangerous if she had tried. A somewhat cunning disguise. She looked at me. Her hazel eyes creasing at the corners as she smiled.
“I didn’t think there were any women in the KNLA.”
“Thirty three and not married, what else are you going to do?” she responded.
Hlaing had found her own way to leave the camp. She’d slip away at dawn, making her way up into the hills. Picking crops each day, she had earned enough money to supplement her family’s daily rations of one cup of rice and half a cup of yellow lentils. Every morning she ran the risk of arrest or worse. Accounts of beatings and rapes, regular punishments, routinely meted out by Thai soldiers or police were common place. Those brave enough to stray outside of the camp zone did so not without risk. That was how she had managed to find the money for her papers.
She invited me to dinner that evening. We sat on the floor of her wooden house built on stilts. She described how her decision to take up arms had been made after the razing of her village. Her father, along with other family members and friends had been killed during the attack by the junta. Her remaining relatives and friends scattered into the malaria infested jungle. “If they don’t get us with a bullet they get us with malaria.” she said matter of factly, her teeth biting down on betel leaves, grinding them into a red paste. “The junta wanted us dead. They still want us gone” Not one to comply easily, Hlaing had refused. She described the night in the jungle when she had been shot.
“I was twenty three. The Battalion Commander was against me going with the brigade. But after Manner Plaw it was over.” She described how Manner Plaw, the KNLA’s headquarters, had fallen. The KNLA had fought for years alongside the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) until a split in the mid nineties. A ceasefire was signed and the DKBA had fought against the KNLA alongside the junta. The results were catastrophic, decimating the KNLA and their resistance. The wound remains raw for many Karen. “I went for my family. I had to do something. After our village was gone, there was nothing left.” She offered me betel leaves from her bag. “When I shot him he died quickly. The men in the battalion were more shocked than I was. I think they were scared of me after that. Scared that I didn’t show any emotion. My mother thinks that soldier’s spirit haunts me. My friends think that I have a form of madness.”
I sat silently listening.
“I don’t belong anywhere anymore. When you fight as a woman you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”