Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Going Home Memoir: a few words into a deep heart

The Going Home Memoir: a few words into a deep heart

(September 6 – October 3, 2010)

From time to time I go through an experience –a person, a process, a provocation-- that is memorable and transcendent. This year, when I returned to my home in Karen state, there were a few such experiences that I carried with me. And, I share them here.


A Karen Soldier’s Thoughts (in conjunction with mine)

He is the functional equivalent of a drill-sergeant. He trains the enlisters during their first four months of basic training in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). He is in his early thirties, maybe. With a soft smile on his face he wears, he carries a small green army bag across his shoulder all the time. And, he smokes when he comes back to his barrack to take a break. He can be seen half laying and half sitting, leaning against the bamboo wall or a pile of rice-sacks at the corner in the barrack. Other times, he can be seen around the training ground, with the soldiers.

I was on the military compound to teach at the nearby Officers’ Training School. Since the compound is an all-male-club, there were no female accommodations. So, when we arrived, myself and another female friend, they first built a separate a new bathroom for us. They emptied the instructors’ barracks to house us. And, during my stay there, another female – an old friend – arrived, intruded. Then, there were three of us.

To reach the school where I taught, we have to traverse the training ground. Initially, it served as a stage for our intrusion – as we walked across it, we stuck out more brilliantly than we did when hiding in our new accommodations. They, in their dark uniforms; me, in my brightly-hued longyi.

Every morning, as I walked to the school, I was reminded of one of the cases I read in law school – the Virginia Military Institute case. Not because I felt any discrimination; on the contrary, I could not have felt more welcome. But because there were something missing: the presence of women attending such an important training school. As I made the trek to class, I pondered the absence of women: why were there no women? Do we need women to participate in this particular field of the struggle?

On evening, one of my female friends returned from her walk of the compound and shared an exchange she had overheard on the training ground. A senior soldier – the functional equivalent of a drill sergeant chastised a soldier, he said: “Don’t be like a woman.” It was a simple statement.

As usual, I did not contain my thoughts. I shared them with the Brigadier General. I understood it was a casual statement; but it was a thoughtless statement. The speaker did not think about what he was saying. And, to me, that was a problem. Why didn’t he think? Shouldn’t he think? What happens if he thinks? If he did not think before, shall he begin to think now?

On my last day, both of my friends left before me in the morning and I stayed behind to conclude my last class. When I came back from my class during lunch break (the lunch break was for me, because the soldiers and all the cadets had only two meals a day), there in the living room I saw the ‘drill-sergeant’ and a couple other soldiers relaxing. As usual, they were smoking cigars and talking quietly about many things.

As I finished eating, I overheard the drill sergeant talking to himself.

“It must be a lot easier to govern the country with peace than with war. Don’t you think, Tharamu [Teacher]?”

He made a statement to himself and at the end asked for my opinion, seemingly without expecting me to answer. And, he continued:

“It’s just a click if the military regime wants to rule peacefully. That way I wouldn’t have to fight either, and none of these men I am training would have to fight. I wonder what we would be doing if we did not have to fight.”

I turned back to look at him and saw that he was reading an old piece of a newspaper. I did not know what he was reading about exactly. He went silent for a while and then said:

“I’ve got enough of war. But, these Burmese troops occupying our land here must know that I get up every morning to train more soldiers like me. We will fight until fighting becomes unnecessary.”

I looked at him again. He was lying there, calmly, in his usual posture. No sign of anger or hatred in his look, nor in his tone. I got up and got ready to go back to my class as it was about time. I told him to have a good day and I left off.

On the way, listening to my footsteps, I thought what I might say to the cadets. Under my boots, there laid the ground – a red earth – for all of us. The ground did not complain about how many footsteps it had to accommodate.

As for my last conversation with the cadets at the Officers’ Training School, of all the things that I wanted to tell them, I chose 3 points to ensure they would not forget:

1) They are the precious sons of the Karen people who are trained to become the leaders of next generation and who will have to lead the country to peace and prosperity for all;

2) They must be individuals and leaders who think rationally, who are sympathetic to the weak and the suffering, who stand up against whomever or whatever in defense of justice for all; and

3) They must be individuals and leaders who treat each other as well as all other people with respect regardless of gender, ethnicity, and faith or religion.

And, of course, I wanted them to know that I love them very much simply because of their selfless sacrifice for something that they believe in – peace and justice for our people. The common good for which they brave the world’s ruthless regime, we are going to forever be indebted.

May Oo


Friday, October 15, 2010

The Going Home Memoir: a few words into a deep heart

The Going Home Memoir: a few words into a deep heart

(September 6 – October 3, 2010)

From time to time I go through an experience –a person, a process, a provocation-- that is memorable and transcendent. This year, when I returned to my home in Karen state, there were a few such experiences that I carried with me. And, I share them here.


The “Car Road”

I have traveled the road into Karen State from Mae Nu Hta for over a decade. It never gets easier. The path paved into the mountain is legendary for its difficulty: as soon as you cross the Salween, the mountain begins. The climb lasts hours, which feel like days.

This year, however, the path was somewhat different. The mountain was still steep, and the terrain unforgiving, but the efforts of villagers to ease the travel burden yielded a wide, clean trail. The sun, shining through the trees, dried the ground just enough to harden the clay.

The locals call it “car road.” They envision the day when there will be cars on the road they built. They imagine themselves commuting by car. Of course, these vehicles exist only in fantasy, this is the war zone of Karen state, and the sole means of transportation and commuting is on foot.

The clay is temperamental. With a little rain, it could easily turn into a slippery nightmare for an unsuspecting pedestrian. But with a little sun, it dries enough to make the walk seem more like a pleasant hike through the mountains. But the trail is long and wide, enough to permit a traveler to walk without disturbance from brush, to see wildlife far enough in advance to take precaution, and to enjoy the scenery of our home state. It did feel like walking on a small rural highway, indeed.

On the way back from Karen State, while walking down the trail, I overheard some Karen soldiers who were walking behind me talking about the “car road.” Their words were so soft, I had to slow my pace to hear them. Of the group, only one of them had ever seen a vehicle in person; yet, they all dreamed out loud:

Is the trail wide enough for a four-wheel truck? one asked.

Another responded, “It might be too winding.”

But the trail can be improved and all kinds of cars can be driven here,” chimed in a third.

The fourth said, “This trail is not quite ready for a car.”

I have known these soldiers for years now. They have never complained about the terrain, or their routine burden of travelling it. After all, this is their life; this is what they have always known. And yet, their dreams about the "car road" saddened me.

In this world, in my world here, I have traveled and I can travel in any way I want: by airplane, by train, by subway, by car, by bicycle, or on foot. It is only when I go home once or twice a year that I am limited to foot travel; and it is then that I long for the luxury of travel choices. And I do not bear this burden gracefully; I become grouchy and grumpy with each additional step.

For now, “car road” in the war zone means a very heavily mined ground and not very desirable or exciting to have to walk on or walk across. I hope the day comes sooner when the local villagers in Karen State’s war zone can realize their dream about “car road.” The road from Mae Nu Hta into Karen State is a start, for we do not have to worry about landmines. But, still, it is not enough to erase the reality of war.

For now, it is just an imagined "car road."

May Oo


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Going Home Memoir: a few words into a deep heart

The Going Home Memoir: a few words into a deep heart

(September 6 – October 3, 2010)

From time to time I go through an experience –a person, a process, a provocation-- that is memorable and transcendent. This year, when I returned to my home in Karen state, there were a few such experiences that I carried with me. And, I share them here.


A Small Person with a Great Personality

I would like to share about a young man who is now a fifth grader at Day Bu Noh High School in Karen State’s war zone. He is smaller than his classmates, but what he lacks in raw height he makes up with his great personality. I met him 4 or 5 years ago. His mother runs a small shop out of her house on the way between Tha Dah Der and Day Bu Noh. We used to stop by the shop en route to Tha Dah Der. She has four small children; he was her firstborn.

From my porch, I can see the soldiers’ barracks. One day, while sitting there, I saw a young man standing amidst the soldiers. He was ordinarily dressed – a military green hat, and a small green bag across his shoulder. He wore a worn out t-shirt distributed by one of the relief organizations as a gift from Good Life Club (American Christian kids club in the U.S) and a pair of red soccer-shorts. But his face intrigued me, so I asked his name. One of the soldiers said the young man was from Welloh Klo, a place between Tha Dah Der and Day Bu Noh. I invited him for coffee.

He walked the twenty or so yards to my steps with a shy smile. He sipped his coffee quietly; his manner was respectful and serious. I asked him about his life, and he answered sweetly but precisely. He told me he was in his fifth year of studies, and had to leave home to go to school, because a school nearby his village only goes to the fourth grade. He lives with his uncle who is a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in a military barrack with four other soldiers. . I asked him if he knew or recognized me. He smiled and said yes.

After a few minutes, he finished his coffee. He got up, and rinsed his cup with water twice. I listened to his stories and watched him with awe. And then, he thanked me and asked to be excused.

I was touched by his manner—the way that he engaged me—a stranger. And I pondered how such a sweet spirit could be preserved in a war zone. Such gentleness would be extraordinary even among children raised in the peaceful West, and yet his personality prevailed even in the face of the brutality of war.

My last night in Karen state, I asked one of the soldiers to ask the young man to visit me. Later, he came with a little red torch-light with a rope wrapped around his neck. I asked him what he had been doing; he smiled shyly and responded: “I was just doing my homework.” I told him that I wanted to say goodbye and to give him something before I left. I handed over some small gifts; he thanked me and left.

I was struck by several things about this young man: first, the grace which exceeded his age; and second, his seriousness in his study. But mostly, I was humbled by his disposition, against such odds. Yes, the war has destroyed the lives of thousands of Karen people, but this young man reminded me of the beauty that persists.

May Oo