Ashes and Tears: The Interviews
Note: During mid-2000, when many of the interviewees left Burma, about 350 to 400 of the Burmese currency, the kyat, would equal one dollar, on the unoffical market.
The bags of rice referred to weigh about 50 lbs. A "viss" is a measurement that equals about 1.5 kilograms or 3.5 lbs.
Interview 1: Satin Lal
Male, age 32.
From: Falam, Chin State.
Education: Bachelor of Theology.
Left Burma: October 2000.
Q: Why did you decide to leave Burma?
A: The final point that made me leave the country was, I was trying to build the church and the government did not like that. We went on building the church and I was threatened to be arrested. Instead of being arrested and be put in prison, I'd rather leave the country. The main person who told me not to build it was Col. Maung Tin, the man in charge of the district.
Q: Had you had problems with the government before that?
A: Many, many. I had been in jail three times. First, 18 June, 1992. In 1988 there was a big uprising and involved in revolutions were the students. They went underground and I went also, primarily to be their pastor. Preaching to them. We went to Kachin State, Pajau [Kachin Independence Army headquarters]. Then in 1991 my father passed away and I came back to see the grave of my father and to see my mother. At that time the government said "you are one of the insurgent leaders," so they arrest me. The second arrest was in 1995, October 5th. In 1995 there was a plan for the Chins to celebrate the harvest festival. This is a national festival. We went ahead and prepared for it and then the commander of there said, "you cannot celebrate." We said, "why not, this is our Chin traditional celebration." So I went to talk to them and instead I was arrested. In 1999, September 4, we called it "the four nines," symbolic, there was a plan throughout the Burma to have activity against the government. And I met with students in Falam and was involved in that activity. And somehow the military realized what was going on and struck first. And I and my wife (who was pregnant) were then taken away by the military on September 8th, a day ahead of it.
Q: Tell about your treatment while in custody...
A: A number of methods of torture. One would be, they put a plastic around my head, to suffocate me. Another is, they stripped me naked to be eaten by mosquitoes the whole time. They gave me meals consisting of rice and sand mixed. They literally shot at my head and somehow missed it, whether intentionally or not, the first time I was in prison. They forced me to kneel on the ground, on sharp rocks for hours, put shackles on my legs.
Q: What about your wife, when she was in custody?
A: They had my wife sit in the office, just sit there. While they were torturing me. After two days she was released.
Q: In Falam, during the last two years you were there, what was the attitude towards religious practice?
A: There was a commanding officer, his name was Col. Than Aung, he told me straight to my face that "Chins are our enemies, because Western people are our enemies." Christianity is a Western religion, Christians and probably pastors, are the number one enemy of the State. The cross that we planted on the hilltop, they cut it down, and on every hill they put up a Buddhist temple [pagoda]. Not only church buildings but anything related to religion, everything is banned, we cannot get it. When they believe that the situation is not good, they will even forbid us to worship. When we try for annual gathering, or Bible leaders' conference, we have to get permission from them. And they require a full detailed description of what is to be said, what is to be discussed, what are the subjects to be taught. If they don't approve, we don't get to.
Our association leaders, when they travel, they have to submit their itinerary to the military commander. In fact, early in the morning, we would broadcast [loudspeaker] devotionals every morning. The commander said he could not sleep, so it ended. And the other thing they do, probably to do some damage to the young people, they opened liquor stores, close by the church. So there's another tactic. And they would bring in the military trucks, military jeeps, and park them in the church compound. And they would come in and out of our church compound with their full equipment, weapons. We practiced church choir every Saturday evening, and the young people participate in it. The military often prevented them from going to church, or even after coming there, threatened them.
I was pastor in a village about four miles from Falam. When the Military Intelligence Service came there they would force the Christian community to kill chickens for them, which had been donated for church functions. So we would have to do that kind of thing without pay. In 1997, the military then took up to have built a Buddhist temple and forced, took two kyat each from every individual in Chin State. Those that were working for the government, they cut the two kyat from their salary. And they would promulgate saying that the Chins were participating in building of this temple. In the year 2000, in the month of April, the water festival in Burma, I was against that sort of thing as it's a Buddhist festival, and the government said I could no longer stay in Falam, so I moved. The main reason was that the District Commanding Officer issued an order that each house must contribute 500 kyat for this festival. I was very much against that practice because why should we Christians be forced to pay 500 kyat just to celebrate that Buddhist festival? So I and other people initiated a mass movement to oppose it. So that's why they expelled me from being allowed to stay around Falam.
There is a strong USDA [Union Solidarity Defense Association, government sponsored organization] even in Falam. So they enlisted eight theology students, they forced them to leave their school and play in the football field, even though the school was going on. And the principal said, "you should not play." And therefore the principal expelled them from school and there was lots of disturbances for three months. They could not open the school and the USDA said "behave or we will close the school altogether." So it's a very threatening situation. That was 1999.
Q: Has pressure regarding religion increased, been the same, or decreased, in the last few years?
A: I think it's more increasing.
Q: Are young people in Falam using narcotics?
A: The church and the youth groups as a whole were against using opium, but there is another substitute in tablet form, Diazepam [the generic name for Valium, an addictive sedative/tranquilizer], and many people are taking it. The tablets are being sold in stores by the government.
Q: What was the health situation in Falam?
A: There were lots of problems in regard to health. Falam has a hospital of 150 beds, but among the doctors there is not even a single Chin doctor. Burmese doctors are there. Over and above that, the assignment of medicines that should have come to the hospital were sold out by the doctors and the staff, and practically there was no medicine for the sick people in the hospital. And as a result, there were many who just could not afford to buy it, and the consequence is death.
In Falam we would have 50% malaria-stricken. The children born have lots of problems, including polio. Either for adults or children, the government does nothing to promote the health. In 1999 there was survey of the health, particularly women. In 1999 the finding is that 80% of women had some gynecological problems. Even if there are urgent needs for surgery operations, there are no surgeons in Falam. So we have to go either to Sagaing Division or even to Rangoon, spending hundreds of kyat. And many die just because they cannot afford that.
My wife was working in the hospital in charge of the TB [tuberculosis] section, but there was practically no medicine, and therefore successful treatment is impossible. And because I left the country, my wife was fired this February, no longer is receiving the salary. From the UN there is an NGO [a non-governmental organization], there was an attempt to educate people regarding the AIDS. We applied for some health assistance to MCC, which is Myanmar Council of Churches. And they sent one staff member and some training to Falam, but to get permission for treatment or survey from the government, the government did not allow. Within the year 2000, there are ten people who died of AIDS in Falam.
Q: Was the NGO information in the Chin language?
A: It was both in Burmese and Falam [Chin dialect]. In 1988 there was a military officer, Than Tin Maung, in charge of Falam township, and he was suffering with HIV disease. And he had a lax morality. As a result, most people believe he passed on the disease to many young girls. And that fact was published by the medical man in charge of Falam hospital, who said that within the next ten years, as a result of this behavior, there would be a thousand people in Falam suffering with HIV.
Q: Are there many government army units stationed in Falam?
A: One battalion. The soldiers would come to our gardens, pick up the fruits, whatever they want, vegetables, and we have no say. If we say something, they would beat us up. That's the practice. Not only vegetables and fruits, but chickens. In 1998 there was a man in Falam by the name of L. And the soldiers, probably they were drunk, and they threw stones at L.'s dogs. L. said, "why do you throw stones at my dogs?" Because of that questioning, the soldiers beat him up, so badly that he was taken to hospital. I was there, so I took care of him. At that time the military commander came and asked, "why did you ask the soldiers, 'why did you throw stones a my dogs'? You have no right to ask that question. The soldiers are the masters, they could do whatever they want. If they want to do, they can beat you up, if they want to do, they can shoot you. That's their prerogative."
Another instance, there was a young lady 15 years old, attending high school, she was taken by two soldiers for raping. And then they stripped her of all of her clothes. And at that time the other people of the village came to the house, so the two soldiers ran away, and one of them before he ran away, he threw a big stone at her and it hit her on the shoulder. I went to the military commander and told the story. He assured me that he would take action, but the civilian has no right to inquire what he did. And we have no right to punish them. In spite of his promise, nothing was done to them. They just kept them at their headquarters.
Anyone they suspect of association with the CNF [Chin National Front] will be arrested if they are caught, and the local military passes these sentences or whatever. In 1999 there was a lady in the village, she was old, 73, she raised chickens, pigs, she lived from those. And one night five soldiers went there and took all the chickens, 17 of them, put them in gunny bags, and took them to Falam military headquarters, and handed over the whole thing to the military commander. When we inquired about what had happened, the military commander said he knew nothing about that.
The relation between the military and the people is, in a nutshell, fear. Fear of the military, and so we cannot say anything we want to say, we cannot do anything we want to do. Even worshipping at the church, we are very scared, especially at night, when we go to the church. Especially girls, their parents would not allow them to go out at night as the military soldiers would do harm to them. The relationship is based on fear.
Q: Why are the authorities concerned about the CNF in Falam, which is a city?
A: The vast majority of the people are for the CNF, they supported them, and so the military are afraid of the CNF, because the CNF can come and go at will. They are with the people. So that's why they are afraid of the CNF.
Q: In recent years, did people have to do work for the government military at all?
A: There are too many things to mention; the difficulties with the army are too many. One thing is, the military use firewood for cooking. And those firewoods, they will force the people to cut it from the forest, carry it to the military persons. If they need water, to lay pipe in the ground, they will force the people to dig the ground and lay the pipe for them. And when the military travel to patrolling areas, they force the people to carry their ammunition, their baggage. They will do the same thing with the cars. To the car owner they will say, "stand by 24 hours, we want your car, we will take it." And they will use the car many days without payment.
There is a sub-station of a village called Tibual. There is a road between Falam and the boundary area to India. Tibual is around that road, closer to the boundary. In that sub-station there were over 30 soldiers, and the water source is [uphill from] the army station. And they would force the people to fetch water all day, every day. Without paying anything to them. And the soldiers would "cook" liquor there. The army would produce liquor, preparing it, "cooking" it, and then they would sell the liquor very cheaply to the people. Many young people got drunk. And when they had prepared it during the day, they would pour out the water at night, and they would force the people to fetch fresh water the next day. It went on and on in this cycle. It is going on even now.
Q: Was there any change in the amount of work being done for the army in 2000?
A: It was rather constant but slightly increasing, I think.
Q: Is there logging going on in that area?
A: There is a forest close by a village called Tlauhmun, nearby, maybe six miles from that village there is a forest, we call it Aikon forest. It's a forest that has grown for probably hundreds of years. And the military forced the people to cut down all these trees in 1999-2000. The military had it sawed into planks for building, and they sell it and they get the money. They sold it to the public works department, which is also a government department. And they used it for bridges -- but this "hual" wood is not good for bridges, so in a year or two the wood gets rotten. The vicious cycle goes on. The military get the money for their living. And then, from last year, [a man] was forced to move the log, but they could not move that one because the log was too big, so they shot him, but he did not die.
Q: Do you know anything about an oil company in the area?
A: There is a village called Kyi Goong, close to Chin State but in Kalemyo township now. In the British time it was part of Chin specification. But now the Burmese took it. At one time the Chin people [obtained] kerosene from it. The name of their leader was No Lian. They produced some kerosene for light. And then the military took it over, they gave contract to the Burmese guy. Then they didn't give the Chin workers money when the kerosene was produced. They did produce but they didn't share it. So it's still going on.
Q: Around the time that you left, how much did rice and cooking oil cost?
A: When I left, a bag of rice cost 3,800 kyat. Cooking oil, one viss would cost 750 kyat. Pork and beef would cost 700 kyat a viss. The prices go up and up.
Q: Regarding Chin culture...
A: [Relocation of cemeteries is going on throughout the Chin State, all the different church cemeteries, including in Falam, the military is forcing the people to move them, and in Chin culture it is very important to keep the bones in one place and not to change or lose even one bone.] We visit the cemetery once a year, at least, and we sacrifice, kill some animal and pray for the dead person, once a year, that is the custom of the Chin people. They moved those cemeteries intentionally, because they know it is valuable to the Chin people. So they want to make the Chin people feel very sad. What they are going to do is, they will persecute and they will execute all the Chin people, if we are rising up against the military. The Falam cemetery was moved by the military and the people of Falam think that they want to kill all the Burmese soldiers, because they feel very bad at that time. But we told the people, "don't be violent. Because if we use the violent way, the military will execute all the Chin people, so keep going on with your prayers."
Mwe Taung is located about ten miles away from Kalemyo, it is situated around the border of Chin State and Sagaing Division. It was found by a German scientist in 1983; he said that from Mwe Taung we can get some metal that can build the airplanes. When the military government heard about that, they wouldn't let the German expert go around the country, they forced him to go back to his country. They closed that project because they didn't want the Chin people to get rich or have more knowledge because of that mine. After that, in 1994, the Burmese military went there and they had research around there. After they knew that the conditions were perfect, they said that they had no charcoal to use in that mine so they cannot do any project in that mine. If Mwe Taung was not located in Chin State, if it was in a Burmese place, there would be a lot of metals to build airplanes.
And there's a lot of raw materials for cement in the Chin State, located six miles from Falam. If we can produce the cement from that area, it would be enough for all over the country. Some of the Chin experts knew about it, and they let the government know about that, but the government didn't do anything about it, saying that there's no charcoal for that project.
To produce the wood, especially the teak, the forests from Haka township, near the border between Chin State and Magwe Division, they constructed a railway to Kalemyo. One of the things that happened was that one of the Chin people, who was from Haka, was put into jail for 12 years because he cut one wood from the forest. But the Burmese military cut all the forests and they took the teak into Mandalay and then to China. All of it arrives in the Shan State near the border of China and Burma. At the time, the military government made Gen. Thaung Zakhai in charge of that project. This teak from Chin Land, Gen. Thaung Zakhai said that this teak would be sold to China and with that money they are going to buy arms. After that, he died. He was poisoned by the military, his wife explained later on. He was one Chin person who was a general in the [government] army. That happened four or five years ago. The answer is that our Chin people cannot cut even one tree of the forest by ourselves.
There was a project to build the airfield in Surbung Tlang, Falam Township, that project is from more than 15 years ago. That is on top of a mountain that is seven miles long and three miles wide. It was ordered by Gen. Maung Aye that all the gas, including the diesel, would arrive in Falam to start the airfield. They gathered villagers from villages around Falam and forced them to work in the airfield. The project was canceled again, because the don't want the Chin people to have this kind of airfield that later on they can use to have international contact. That's why the only state in the country that doesn't have an airfield is the Chin State.
About the college and university. When the military government appeared, they said they will build a college in the Chin State. All the Chin people want to build that college in Haka, that is the capital of Chin State. But, the college that was built, was at the border between Sagaing Division and Chin State. But the military released the news internationally that they built one college in Chin State. After they released the news, they changed the name of the college to Kale College. After that, twenty of the Chin elders were arrested. Furthermore, we have two theology colleges in Chin State. That is in Falam and Haka, and the military always thinks about how to close those colleges.
How they destroyed the education system in Chin State is that with 4th standard, there is no more examination in the class. They go to school and they just step up to another standard. In those years, they learn Burmese, especially. After they finish 4th standard and they reach the middle school, they charge a lot of money for the classes. Most of the students cannot continue into middle school because they have not enough money and they have not enough foundation of education. We have one nurses' training school in Chin State. They opened that nursing school for the Chin people. Among the 150 trainees, for a year, only 30 trainees are Chin people. The remaining trainees are Burmans and they change their name as the Chins. One of the Chins, if she wants to join that nursing school, she has to pay 300,000 kyat to the authorities of the school. That amount of money cannot be gotten by a Chin even if they work for ten years.
One of the famous Chin singers, his name is Salai Sun Ceu, in his song he told that "the road of the Chin State is a 200 years' journey." That means that the roads in the Chin State will become good conditions in 200 years. Each and every year, 40 to 50 people will die because of the car accidents. Because the roads are very narrow, and the steepness of the mountains. Five years ago, the India government told the Burmese government that the India government will construct the road from Kale to the border area. But the Burmese government did not allow to construct that road. If that road were open, the CNA, the CNF would move freely and they will get stronger.
About the hydroelectric power in Chin State, there is three, that is in Tiddim, Falam and Haka. The hydroelectric power stations in Falam and Haka -- the engines were from Australia. Those machines were donated by Australia by Haka and Falam. But the military took those machines, and replaced them with China-made machines there. They took the Australian donated machines to Mogok [and Mandalay]. About the Tiddim hydroelectric power, during the construction of that hydroelectric power in Tiddim, the people were forced to work for the power plant. One of the soldiers shot with a gun one of the Chins, who died in Falam Hospital, seen by myself in 1998. The electricity power produced, they will distribute to the army camp as the first priority. And in Falam, according to the Japan Aid, we got a water supply from fourteen miles from Falam. All the water goes first to the army camp, and they use the water as they want to, and only the water that's left, the public can use. We Chins have a lot of resources to build hydroelectric power, but we can't even do it by ourselves, because the government doesn't allow us to make that kind of electric power in the Chin State.
Our cultivation, we cut the trees first, after burning it down, we put the seeds into the soil, it is the custom of the Chin people. The military banned cutting and burning the forest, so we cannot plant our crops anymore. We have not enough food. One Chin in Thantlang township was arrested and put into jail for two years for that [cultivation]. About the livestock in Chin State. One of the unique animals that we can see in the Chin State is the mithun [a type of large domesticated wild cattle]. From one mithun we can get 200 viss of meat. About 300 kilograms. All the mithuns were bought by the military and they sold them into the foreign country. If our own Chin people sold these animals into the border area, into India, we would be arrested and put into the jail for five to six years. Because they sold those animals, those who had connection with the [government] military, sold all those mithuns to another country, now there are hardly any left, and almost extinct. Each household used to raise the mithun. It was one of the symbols of the Chin people, and one of our wealths. We killed that animal only when we celebrate a big ceremony, as in ancient times.
The orchids, a variety grows in the Chin State, the plants are very valuable in this time, so [harvest] was banned by the Forestry Department in the Chin Land. But Burmese people got the permits to buy those orchids, and they collected all those orchids from the Chin State. They carried all the orchids into Burma.
So, we Chin people have no right to use our resources, whether inside or outside of our Chin Land. There are limitations on education, transportation, and economics. We have no chance for international communications. The tourists can travel anywhere around the country, but not in the Chin State, they can arrive only up to Kalemyo. That's why we never see the foreigners in Chin State.
Food production is very low in our region. We rely on the food from outside our Chin State. Sometimes they limit the rice, and when they hold up the rice for one week, in Falam we have no more rice to eat. This morning I got the information that people are not allowed to carry the rice from Kalemyo, in Sagaing Division to Falam anymore. When the military wants to do something to the Chin people, first they cut off the rice to the Chin people. After that, the military thinks they can do anything they want to. In Falam and Thantlang townships, if there is no more rice for the public, for the Chin people, the Buddhist monasteries have rice. They distribute the rice to the Chin people. They "mark" the ones who get that rice from them as a "Buddhist."
There are orphanage schools, one in Falam and one in Thantlang and three in Kalemyo. There are about 150 orphans in Thantlang and 70 in Falam. They became orphans because their parents died from some disease or were killed. In Falam the school is called Nazareth Orphanage. It was taken care of by one of the teachers. He feeds them by collecting donations from one household to another in that town. And he raised some goats and cows, and earned some money by selling the milk, so he can buy some food and feed those orphans. He manages to keep that orphanage school going that way. We are sorry to see those children, because their situation, the way they are poorly dressed and underfed, is in very bad condition.
In Thantlang, the orphanage school, the difficulty they encounter is the same as in Falam. In the orphanage they teach the Bible, and in the daytime they go to school. The children practice a song asking people to help them, and they go from house to house collecting donations. Sometimes they have no more food to eat, so the teachers tell them to pray while they are "fasting." There are orphans all over the Chin Land, maybe 10,000, but only a few orphanages in the Chin State. They can eat the meal with meat only once a month. They are malnourished and several have tuberculosis. I want their needs known internationally. For the orphans in Thantlang and Falam, about US$5,000 would meet all their needs for all of them for one month. Even the orphanage school could not practice freely, and the government wants to close it. They inquire about who donates money to them. We always see those orphans in our mind.
Q: Are they the same size at each age as the other children in town?
A: Totally different. They are always malnourished and their growth is stunted.
Q: If you compare the children in general in the Chin State with the children who live here on Guam, are they the same size at each age?
A: I cannot express with words how much smaller the Chin children are! [a visitor] said that all of the villagers around Thantlang in Chin State were malnourished. Some Chin orphans were taken by the Burmese military, the number will be more than 2,000. They are brought to Pegu to one of the schools. They teach them Buddhism and they want to make them all into Burmans. They train all of them to act like Burmans when they're grown up. That happened since three years ago.
Q: What do you know about "ethnic nationalities schools"?
A: In Sagaing they have it. Nationalities Development College. The aim of the training is to have the mind of the Burman and the mind of the military during the training, and afterwards when they serve in their region, they will have that kind of spirit. [Elsewhere in Burma] there is a place where the military took some of the Chin young men, especially those who are naughty boys, to their camp and they are taught to be a lot of bad things, and they use those youths as a special force of them. There is a degree college of nationalities in Mandalay. [They teach science, art and the policy of the military. All indigenous people. After finishing there, they become officers in the government departments.]