Ashes and Tears: The Interviews
Interview 5: "Ms White"
From: Myitkyina, Kachin State.
Education: post-graduate degree.
Left Burma: November 2000.
Q: Why did you leave Burma?
A: I had a problem with the government, the Kachin State authority. When I was working in my department, the government forced us to donate money to the Buddhist festival from our salary every month, without our consent. They deducted it every month. The most recent was the [Buddhist] festival of lights, and the government deducted money from our salary. I led my colleagues to oppose the donation, I organized them against the policy. So the MI asked us to come and see them for a few questions, interrogation. I just refused and fled.
Q: Had the government ever questioned you before?
A: In 1998 there was a government policy to do the farming, to expand the cultivation, the rice farming, so we were forced to go and farm those lands, about three persons for each acre, to a village far from Myitkyina. We would have to go there by train, by car and then walking. A remote place with forests and malaria. Virgin land that we would have to transform into farmland. To expand the rice production. We would have to sleep on night on the way, to get there. The first time, our department only asked for men, but the second time they asked for women as well. I refused to go there, since it's very difficult. That's why I was arrested and taken into custody for eight days. After eight days they released me with a warning, and I had to pay them as a penalty for defying the military orders. They warned me that if I offend any other government orders, then I will be punished strongly.
Q: Was the university in Myitkyina open or closed most of the time?
A: After 1996 it was shut until June 2000. The correspondence kind of university, "distance university" was open. All of the distance universities were controlled by Rangoon University in the past. In recent years, Mandalay University became in charge of upper Burma. The students have to attend only ten days before their exams. Before that they have a kind of correspondence. They have to attend weekend classes for about three months before they take their exams. Up to 10th grade [standard] in high school, they are taught quite properly, but after they pass their 10th grade, most of the students start to work. To attend the university or the distance learning is only to get a degree. Just for show. It won't mean anything, it won't help anything for them. They won't learn properly.
Q: Did the government give special training sessions?
A: Every employee has to attend special training by the government based on their policy, concerning unity of the ethnics in Burma and the policy of the military government, that kind of thing we had to learn. We were forced to attend the classes, that's why we went. We felt it wouldn't do anything for us, but it is necessary to attend the training.
Q: Did they have the USDA in Myitkyina?
A: It was not necessary to be part of the USDA but if you want to join it, you can. I didn't join it. But sometimes if they need some help they ask you to help those people. Last year they had a kind of mass meeting from every part of the country. And some of the people of USDA from [Tenasserim] Division came to Myitkyina to attend the meeting, so the local people, had to accommodate those people, so I was forced to feed two of them.
Q: Are there many government troops in Myitkyina itself?
A: Yes, I'd see them every day. There's plenty of the government soldiers since the Northern Division of the Burmese Army is based in Myitkyina. I didn't have any problems with the soldiers in the city. I wasn't involved in anything regarding them.
Q: Were there any problems regarding religious practice in Myitkyina?
A: I don't know much about this, but what I witnessed was, we Christians were not allowed to build a new church in Myitkyina. Even in the university it was not allowed to build a church or prayer room for the students so they have to worship in a small hut.
Q: Are there taxes or other ways the government asks for money in Myitkyina?
A: For every festival, high school and university students are forced to donate the money. Every student, every teacher. And from their salary the department deducts it. On top of that they have to donate by themselves as well.
Q: Did students or teachers have problems with the authorities?
A: Most did not have problems with the government. They know the outcome so they won't do it.
Q: Has the situation in Myitkyina become better or worse in the last five years?
A: I don't see that it's become better.
Q: Were people from the city asked to work for the army in 1999-2000?
A: Apart from the farming, they have to do forced labor for building bridges and building roads and for cleaning the woodlands. It's always continuous work, most of the time. Building the bridges was 1999.
Q: At the time you left, what was the cost of rice and cooking oil?
A: The regular grade, not quality and not the worst one, for a bag of rice, which is about 50 pounds, is about 5,000 kyat. The worst kind is around 3,000. Just to get the idea, before the government increased the salary, it was a starting salary of 1,300 to 1,500 kyat [per month]. So for a person who earns that kind of salary, they probably cannot afford to buy bags of rice. On top of that, a kind of additional payment of 25 kyat every year. After they increased the salary, now we earned about 5,700 kyat [per month], the current salary. And a bottle of oil, this is about 300 kyat. The prices never go down. The traders, whenever they hear that the government is going to increase the salary, the price of the foodstuffs is always increased. So there's no going down, always increased. It's always available, unless the trains have a problem, in which case the price of foodstuffs is increased. The only available transportation for it is the train.
Q: Where do the manufactured goods in the markets or shops in Myitkyina come from?
A: Some of the things are made in Burma and some from China. At the university the facilities it has, the level of the education is very, very low. Nobody had even seen computers in the past. From last year, they started to see computers in the university. There's about 20 computers in the whole university, but most people there didn't know how to use it. They were given a kind of training, but don't really know about the computers, not even what kind they were. The first were a kind of Apple, that was given by the company as a kind of present. There's no internet facilities or e-mail facilities, only word processing like a typewriter.
Q: How did you get information in Myitkyina?
A: From the radio, like BBC or VOA.