Ashes and Tears: The Interviews
Note: The KIA (Kachin Independence Army) is the military force of the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization.)
Interview 6: Maran Kai Ra
Female, age 28.
From: Sumprabum, Kachin State.
Occupation: family grocery store and distributing medicine.
Education: BA, Myitkyina University.
Left Burma: September 2000.
Q: Why did you leave Burma?
A: Because of the political movement. Since 1988 I started to be involved in the student movement, and after that, when Aung San Suu Kyi came to Myitkyina, I welcomed her with flowers. After she left, I was asked to come to the MI for interrogation, and after that I had a record. I was also involved with the 1996 student movement and continuously I was involved in the political movements and organizing and distributing political pamphlets. Most recently they suspected me of involvement with Aung San Suu Kyi's party and the underground student movement. My name was on their list. One of my uncles was an elected party Member of Parliament of the NLD party and I always followed him, helping him for organizing for the party, so they recognized me.
Q: What was political organizing like as a student?
A: We had to do it as an underground movement, through the religious groups and the Kachin literature and the cultural organizations. We don't have formal organizations like student unions.
Q: How did you get information?
A: News from abroad we get from BBC, VOA and AIR, but within Burma, within the student organization we have a kind of representative or student leader from Myitkyina or Rangoon and they travel and give information to each other.
Q: How did the university teach history?
A: Most of the history that we learned was not the facts, but they rearrange history, rewrite history. About Burmese people themselves, how good they were to the people.
Q: Were many university students involved in politics?
A: About 60% of the students were interested in politics.
Q: Were students using narcotics?
A: Yes. Opium and heroin. Since the universities were closed, students started to use the drugs. At the new universities in Rangoon, there is almost free drug trading going on at the university compounds. To persuade the students not to be involved in the politics, to deal with the pressure. There's even prostitution there.
Q: What education was available in Sumprabum?
A: There's only up to 8th grade [standard] in Sumprabum. So mostly they have to go to Myitkyina or Rangoon for higher education.
Q: What were the health conditions in Sumprabum?
A: There's no proper clinic or hospital, there's not a single doctor. And there's plenty of health problems, especially malaria. The local people in Sumprabum are taught by the nurses, not by the doctors, how to avoid the diseases. As far as I know, there's no HIV positive in the area, but some TB. The people who have TB have to go to Myitkyina for treatment, there's no clinic.
Q: Are there traveling doctors in the area?
A: There's a kind of doctor who goes around checking villagers, almost once a year.
Q: What is the food situation in the Sumprabum area?
A: Mostly everything is locally grown. But salt and oil... they bring from Myitkyina. There's not enough rice. Because of the hill cultivation we cannot produce enough rice for the local people.
Q: Is there much government army in the area?
A: Yes, they have an army base there.
Q: Do they ever ask people to work for them?
A: Yes, many times. In the past, there's plenty of portering. People were forced to work as porters. But now, there's almost no more portering. But still people are forced to do forced labor to build their army camp or to build roads or such things. There's no payment. Every household has to do it one by one. If this week it's this household, next week it will be the other to help the military.
Q: When's the last time you were in Sumprabum?
A: May 2000.
Q: At that time, was the army still asking people to work for them?
A: Yes, mostly building the road.
Q: Is there logging in that area?
A: Yes, the government gives the permit to businessmen, mostly Chinese, to cut the wood, and taking the gold and cane for trading. The hire the local people and people who come from Myitkyina, not just Kachin, everyone. Because of that permission to cut the tree and do the gold mining and other stuff, most of the mountains and the hillsides have been emptied of forests. And the way of the streams, they also changed it to dig the gold. So everything's changed, and also the wildlife. In the past we heard the sound of the wildlife. But no more. They all ran away. You can hardly see any wild animals in the area anymore.
Q: What kind of animals were there before?
A: There were so many things, like tigers, monkeys, and boars. Especially monkeys, so many monkeys, but no more.
Q: What about fishing?
A: In the past the villagers, the local people only used nets for fishing. But the people from the city, when they arrived, they used the mines [explosives] for the fishing. That's why now there is almost no more fish at all.
Q: How is the water for drinking?
A: The water's very good.
Q: Besides the Chinese, were there any other foreigners coming to the area for business?
A: Apart from the Chinese there's no other foreigners, no Indians, no Westerners.
Q: In Sumprabum, in the last two years before you left, was life for the local people getting better?
A: There's not much change, but I would say slightly better because of the ceasefire between the KIA [Kachin Independence Army] and the government, since there is no fighting. So they are not forced to porter, so it's a little bit safer than before.
Q: Is the gold mining or logging improving people's economic status?
A: Slightly better, but I believe that for the long term it won't be good.
Q: Are people able to freely practice their religion there?
A: They are allowed to, if they get the permission from the military authorities. In advance they have to ask for permission. How many days the Christian festival or religious festival will take place, how many people will come to the festival. For the moment, the local people cannot afford to build a new church.
Q: Is there any effort to convert people to other religions there?
A: A Buddhist mission is there now. There is no pressure, but they offer if you become Buddhist, they will take you to Rangoon or Mandalay.
Q: How was it for you to travel between Sumprabum and Myitkyina?
A: In the past, we had to walk for about a week to get to Myitkyina from Sumprabum. But now there is car transportation, but it will take about two days, two nights. Which is about, just over 100 miles. 132 miles. It costs about 5,000-6,000 kyat, one month's salary.