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A story of four friends from Myanmar - 13 August 2007 Back to stories index

Once upon a time there were four close friends in Mawlamyaing, a small town at the mouth of Thanlwin (Salawin or Salaween) river in Mon state of Myanmar (Burma).

Thura is the eldest son in a poor family. The father was general laborer working at construction sites on and off. The mother sold fried food that people eat as snacks or dessert, at the market, to chip in to pay the bills. The family had never been able to get rid of debts and were living in a makeshift wooden hut. Nevertheless Thura was a bright student in the high school and was loved by friends and teachers many of whom helped him with financial matters.

Thida is the only daughter in a well to do family. The father was a school master in the high school, and her mother owned a small shop in the market selling imported clothes from Thailand.

Chit Kyaw is a second son of a low income family where the father worked in a government office. He was a humble, shy but hard working kid.

Aung Aung is the youngest child in a merchant family. They had a mini store selling grocery and household goods at the corner of the main market. Being a shop owner did not mean they had good income. There were times the family had to struggle to make ends meet.

All four friends helped their parents during the school breaks as much as they could. The time was under the socialist government management. After the school they used to sit down at the pier over looking the Thanlwin river mouth, the vast ocean (Gulf of Mokttama) and Belu island.

Aung Aung was the one who talked most about economy and doing business, the corruption of the government officials and their daily dealing with problems. Thura was a fan of Socialist books and always talked about how the basic education should be to create more responsible people. Chit Kyaw always tried to change to talk about funny things and what was going on around town. Thida, the only girl in the party, was a mediator between friends whenever they had got disagreement.

When they completed high school three boys came to Mawlamyaing college where they studied in different faculties. But they still took time to meet sometimes. Thida's father was transferred to Yangon and the whole family moved to the capital.

In 1988 something big happened. A student uprising started in the capital Yangon was fast spreading to various states and divisions. It quickly arrived in Mawlamyaing. Nobody knew for sure how it came about. But the uprising announced it planned to push for political change from current dictatorship to more democracy.

One day during the crisis the three friends met at the market. Thura said, "The government has been treating the country like their own back yard for so long. It is not actually a Socialist system. So we must fight."

All three took part in the peaceful protests in different groups. Meanwhile many changes happened in Yangon. Every one was listening to the news on what was going on. Various political groups were working with their counterparts in Yangon as well as in other places.

Finally the student-led protests were crushed by the military by force and many people ran to the border areas to escape from arrest. The political movement took a new turn both inside and outside the country. There were also organizations along the border keeping contacts with underground organizations within the country.

Many more changes took place, and in 1990 general election was held by the government. Everyone was now fed up with the government. They hated it very much. On the other hands, people had no way to know much about political parties sprouting up like rainy season mushrooms. However they knew well which were the government puppets. Finally many people opted for the most famous non-government party. The three friends also did the same out of anger and emotion and the hope that the party they voted for should be much better.

The election was followed by the bad news. The government refused to hand over the power. Political activities continued.

All three friends got arrested for their role in the anti government movement. Chit Kyaw and Aung Aung were released after about a year in detention, and they continued to study for their degrees.

Few years later, after graduation, Chit Kyaw moved to stay with relatives in Yangon to find job. Aung Aung's family was now having bad business. The mini store was not making enough money. The father had to travel to work as a sub contractor for construction works but the conditions were not improving much. Leaving his sisters and mother to manage the store Aung Aung came to Myawaddy, a border town with Thailand to find a work.

Meanwhile Thura was released from the jail. He did not meet the friends because they were no longer in Mawlamyaing. Thura quietly continued his political activities while enrolled himself in the remaining years in the college.

On one rainy day in 1994 Chit Kyaw arrived at Bangkok port onboard his sea going ship. He was a deck cadet on a Singapore company owned container ship. By chance he met a Myanmar engineer who came onboard for a refrigeration system repair with his coworkers. According to that Engineer Thida was in Bangkok and was trying to go to another country. "When you will finish your contract?" the engineer asked Chit Kyaw. "I have been on this ship 2 years, so it will be another 1.5 year or more before I can sign off to sit exam to become a third officer," Chit Kyaw answered.

Chit Kyaw was not very happy onboard. He was treated like a sub standard human being. Conversational pieces like "Burmese sailors - very cheap shits" were often heard. In the dining room he was not allowed to have more than one mug of hot drink, one chicken egg, and one pack of instant noodle a day by the kangaroo regulation. He sometimes thought of having to work on a ship where there were more Burmese workers. But then when he met with a country man who worked with many other Burmese sailors on a ship the news was not encouraging. "Maybe you escape a bit from what you are suffering now but you will see a lot of other problems like talking behind your back," the fellow Burmese sailor once he met said. For now he worked with many nationalities speaking many different languages so he did not know what the others were talking about him unless they spoke English. "That is good," he talked to himself as if to see things positively. He worked two 4 hours shifts plus 4 hours deck work everyday except Sunday. While at the dock they were always on duty. His go-shore visits were mostly denied by the first officer with the reason that he had things to do while others enjoyed visit of the port cities they arrived on rotation basis. His salary was the lowest among all onboard. He had never seen the contract and never knew if he had insurance for any accident. One of his regular duties was cleaning the sewage piping of crew quarters whenever the mechanical system failed while other cadets were attending the lecture.

About the same time, Aung Aung was enjoying his third day in a Thai police station. He was arrested on the road while traveling from Mae Sot to Umphang to work in a farm. The pick up truck he was taking was stopped at a check point and police searched for Burmese without proper travel document. He had none because he had not yet got a job , and thus got arrested. His fellow friends who had work document promised him to come and fetch him by paying the police 3000 Thai Baht. The police could wait only three days, after that they would hand over him to Burmese (Myanmar) authorities. Finally the luck was with him at the last hours. The friends came to his rescue paying the required bribe. He thanked the friends and came with them to Umphang. Actually these friends were not old friends; he just knew them a couple of months ago. He would pay back the money but did not know when.

In a village north of Umphang town Aung Aung got off with the friends and was introduced to a Thai farm owner. He started working on that day. The pay was 50 Thai Baht a day for the first month and it would be 60 Thai Baht after that. He was thinking about the 3000 Baht he owed to the friends. When he asked about the work permit, the Thai owner said, "Never mind. We will do it later. You don't go anywhere and nobody will arrest you." Each day Aung Aung and other workers mostly from Myanmar (Bamar, Karen, etc.) went to the farm early morning before sunrise and worked whole day the back breaking jobs. At sun down they came back to their makeshift bamboo huts. They had rice. To eat with rice they had to go into the forest to find bamboo shoots. They also had some vegetable from the farm. For things like clothes, blanket, medicines he had to borrow from others for the time being.

In 1995 Thura came to Yangon, after unsuccessfully running a friend's small business in Mawlamyaing. He was not much interested in getting a degree. In fact he dropped out of the collage 2 years ago after failing to pass exam two times. One of former political activists called him to come to Yangon where he could find a job possibly in a foreign joint venture company. He told his college girlfriend that he would be successful in Yangon, and as soon as things were settled they would be able to start their family life together. His girlfriend he met in the first year college is also from a similarly poor family.

With good contacts he got a job with decent pay in a private company in Yangon. He stated sending money back home. He also tried to find Thida's home in Yangon. Finally he met with Thida's parents at their home one day. According to them his friend was now in Australia. It was a long time he never met Thida's parents so they talked a lot. Thida finished her degree from Yangon university. During the democracy uprising Thida was sent to stay with her uncle in Pathein. "She wanted to take part in the protest. But it was dangerous so we sent your friend to stay with her uncle for a while," her mother told Thura. According to her parents Thida at first went to Bangkok, and worked as a teacher assistant in a school. Lately she got visa to travel to Australia; there she was now looking for a job.

A few months later when he met with a friend who used to take part in the politics he heard another news. Thida was granted refugee visa to Australia. She applied that visa while she was in Thailand. "Maybe her parents don't know the details," he thought to himself. And an idea flashed in his mind. What about him going overseas?

One day in 1996 a bad luck arrived for Chit Kyaw. He was looking forward to signing off on arrival Singapore next week. On that night at Indian ocean, his fellow ship cadet came into the wheel house while he was on duty. The officer was not there at that moment. The apparently drunk cadet played with the wheel and changed the ship course while he was in the toilet behind the wheel house. When he came out from the toilet he knew something was wrong with the ship position and he demanded the other cadet what did he do. The other cadet grabbed him and kicked at the stomach.

Actually there was a long story. The other cadet, a few years younger than Chit Kyaw, was always jealous of him because of his ability to learn and master the things quickly and much better than himself. At one point during nearly 2 years together on the ship Chit Kyaw even explained the working principle of rudder, normally an engine crew responsibility, while they were helping the engineer crew repairing a minor problem. All in all there were people who, in their hearts, disliked Chit Kyaw. After all Burma or Myanmar was a place, they believed, people of superior capacity did not exist.

The moment he was kicked hard Chit Kyaw got very angry. Normally he was able to control himself for all mis-treatment throughout the nearly four years at sea because he must be like that. This time it was too much. But Chit Kyaw, from Burmese point of view, made a terrible mistake. He responded his attacker.

Thus what happened when the deck officer came back to the wheel house? He saw what was going on clearly. But, of course, what he saw was the final part of the episode.

The next day there was a heated talk between the two cadets, the duty officer, first officer and the captain. To come to the conclusion Chit Kyaw was allowed to sign off on arrival Singapore with his pay cut for 3 months and he was awarded no certificate for his four year duty on the ship at sea. His seaman book was painted in red. It sent his seaman career to the dead end.

After signing off in bad shape he went to stay at a friend's apartment during his 2 weeks stay permit in Singapore. That friend encouraged him to find a job there. So he read newspapers and sent application letters to many companies including ship related ones. He had got few interviews. Before his visa expired he was given a job at a ship repair company. The company liked him for his knowledge and experience. But he had no sea service certificate. "Never mind," said the supervisor of the company. "We know you have experience. You must give us your degree certificate and all other document so we can apply for your employment permit," he concluded at the end of orientation on the day one.

While waiting for the employment permit he got visa extension and started working. Because of his diligence and quick learning coworkers, mostly Malays and Indians became to like him in few days.

One Sunday when he was eating Mokhinkha (a famous Burmese dish) at a food court he met Thura out of expectation. They were surprised and very happy, and asked each other many questions. Thura had been working in a company as an assistant for six months. He described his job as import, export and accounting. The two friends made a tour of Singapore together the whole evening before they parted taking each other's phone numbers.

After 5 months in Singapore, in early 1997, the employment application was rejected. His company, being quite serious to keep him, sent an appeal letter. They also tried to meet the officer at the foreign worker employment department. At that time his visa would not be extended and he must leave. On the day he left his supervisor told him a sad news. "You know Chit Kyaw what happened?" he begun. "They found your degree certificate as a fake," he continued looking carefully at his eyes. Chit Kyaw was shocked.

Meanwhile in Thailand Aung Aung was leading rafting and trekking tours in Umphang wildlife sanctuary. His employer was a tour operator there. His pay was 200 Baht per day only for the days they had tourists. Because of his jungle survival ability and English language plus good service to the foreign tourists he was one of the best guides there. However his work permit allowed him to work and stay in only Tak province. Actually his work permit was not for guiding tours which was reserved for Thai nationals. Because a Thai licensed guide required at least 600 Baht/day and most were not familiar with Umphang jungle, tour operators usually use local people or people with experience as guides regardless of license.

Before going on a typical trip Aung Aung would clean tents, sleeping bags and prepare other items such as food and cooking gear. He would discuss with the other members on what to do and what to be careful about as well as on safety matters, timing, trails, and weather conditions. The trip would start at a Mae Klong river bank near Umphang town in an inflatable rubber boat floating down the current and rapids for about 3 hours to a place called Tha Sai. There they would walk or, if in the dry season, take a 4 wheel truck to Thilosu waterfall camp yard. Setting the camp and cooking, helping the tourists with washing clothes, etc. were his duty. He also talked to the tourists about the place, life, the plants, and so on. Tourists would also learn doing things on the trip. The next day they would walk to visit the waterfall, and take a walk to a Karen village. Since Aung Aung could speak Karen he was very useful during the trip.

Because Umphang was not yet popular among foreign tourists Aung Aung got tour only several times a month. So he still had to do something else to find other income to make ends meet. Whenever he thought about working in other places it was quite difficult for him. He had to go back to Myanmar and travel to Yangon to apply for a passport which was very expensive. Only with passport he could come to Thailand, get a job and there was a chance to have blue colour work permit which would allow him to travel the whole country.

Chit Kyaw called Thura from Singapore Chengi airport. Thura was very surprised to hear about the "fake degree certificate". "But yours is a real degree certificate, right?" Thura enquired. "Yes, of course. Maybe my certificate is not beautiful enough," Chit Kyaw said. "Well. Thailand may have jobs for you. I might also come to Thailand next year. I think I have some business there," Thura said before Chit Kyaw told him good bye.

A year passed. In the early 1998 Chit Kyaw met again Thura in Bangkok. Chit Kyaw was already working onboard a tourist boat running between islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The boat was much smaller than the one he used to work. But it was a new experience for him to learn. As usual he was good at things onboard and was liked by everyone. His salary was not much lower than Thai people but it was smaller than the wage he enjoyed on sea going vessel. "That is OK. I am not treated very bad so far," he told himself. Because the boat was operated only 9 months he got 3 months leave without pay. However he had non-immigrant visa and work permit.

It was during his long holiday that he met Thura in Bangkok. Thura was coming to meet with his friend who lived in a serviced apartment on Sukhumvit road. That was the third time Thura and Chit Kyaw met outside Myanmar, after two times in Singapore. The two friends had strange feeling on each other. Chit Kyaw saw Thura quite different from a humble poor boy he knew in Mawlamyaing. Thura was talking big things using high pitch sound like a commander giving a powerful speech to his troops. There was not much of logic and reasons in his talks. It was rather trying to have a command of a military general. Thura also felt that Chit Kyaw was thinking too much, too deeply and too widely. Chit Kyaw did not want to think in a box without taking into consideration what had been going on outside the box.

"You have changed," Thura said.

They met a few more times in Bangkok before Chit Kyaw went back down south to join his boat.

In his next work break in 1999 Chit Kyaw traveled to the border area to visit the refugee camps. In fact he wanted to send some books, medicines, and clothes he had been collecting the whole year. He had finally got two large bags to carry. At first he came to Bangkok and then next day boarded on a night bus to Mae Sot.

When his bus arrived Mae Sot early in the morning Chit Kyaw directly went to a Burmese clinic using a motorbike taxi. Unfortunately the people at the clinic did not want to accept his visit. He, nevertheless, left one bag containing medicines and clothes and departed to find a guesthouse to stay. In the afternoon he used the same motorbike taxi to come to a refugee camp. After passing through inspection at the check gate he was able to enter and donate the other bag full of books, clothes, and medicines. At the refugee camp which looked like a village of makeshift huts he met some elders. He talked to the people there for few hours to learn the situations.

At night when he came to check his email at the internet cafe a big surprise was waiting. He saw Aung Aung there! The two friends went to spend the night at Aung Aung's apartment. Aung Aung was now working in Mae Sot in a Thai-Burmese run company. The company had import, export and also some tourism activities. "The business is good," Aung Aung said. "Maybe next year they will provide me money to go back to apply for a passport so I can have a better type of work permit," he continued. Aung Aung was living with his Thai girl friend who spoke some Burmese. Aung Aung talked about his life in Thailand, the hardship during the first several years, and how he came and got the current job. After telling about himself, Chit Kyaw also told him about Thura.

At that point Aung Aung explained Chit Kyaw about divisions, changes, and what was going on among political activists. "Now we are using Internet to discuss everything. But the problem is, I think, people like to compete with others to show they are superior in English language, international knowledge, thinking skill, philosophy. It sounds like we are trying to win over each other in a communication contest. Not much is honestly and selflessly discussed on what we should do based on the local, regional and global reality for short and long terms. Also there are lots of emotional and personal matters, as well as worships" Aung Aung reported. They talked until 3 am when Aung Aung's girlfriend reminded that he had an early morning work.

Chit Kyaw stayed with them 3 nights. Then he continued to Mae Hong Son by bus.

At the end of his one month long trip to northern Thailand Chit Kyaw had came to know more about the life of people there. On the way back to the south he stopped over at Ranong too.

In 2000 the friends did not meet each other because Chit Kyaw was going home on holidays, and Thura was preparing for his trip to the USA using his Bangkok friend's letter. But now all four old friends had email communication, including Thida who was settled down in Sydney in Australia with her family.

In 2001 August, just before his work break, Chit Kyaw was injured in a ship accident while on duty. He was hospitalized for 2 weeks, and had lost 2 digits on his left hand. His salary was cut for his absence as well as for medication. Having seen lot of problems in the life Chit Kyaw accepted it with a faint smile. When he was discharged from the hospital he went to see the company manager to know whether or not he would continue to work considering his handicap. "For the time being you will continue to work when we started again (in November). But I don't know for next year," replied the manager.

During this break he received email from Thura saying that he was coming to Bangkok to go to the US. Thura was to get the visa in Bangkok. Chit Kyaw came to Bangkok airport to meet him to say good bye before he left for the USA. They might probably never meet again. Having some different views on politics they did not talk much about that. Thura talked about taking his girlfriend from Singapore to the US next year after getting US re-entry papers. Chit Kyaw understood that his old friend was not talking about the girl friend from Mawlamyaing who waited him all his prison years plus Singapore years. "I will send the sponsor letter if you want to visit the US. Don't worry. I will have a large house and a car in a few years. I am going there as a policy director," he continued. "Did you get Sydney photos Thida emailed to us? That is the life we are after. We are all heading toward that goal - that I have envisioned in the mind for quite a long time now," he finished the talking and entered the immigration passport control area.

Later at that night the telephone rang in Chit Kyaw's friend's apartment where he was staying. It was the call from Aung Aung's girlfriend. She said Aung Aung was badly beaten by a gang just an hour ago and now in Mae Sot hospital. His head was badly damaged and was unconscious in the emergency unit. Chit Kyaw told her he would come in the first bus in the morning. Chit Kyaw and his friend talked about the event. They knew there were hate gangs operating at night in Mae Sot looking for Myanmar people to harass.

Next evening he met Aung Aung's girlfriend in Mae Sot hospital. Sleepless face and wide eyes from crying greeted him. Aung Aung was in Intensive Care Unit and nobody would be allowed to see him at the moment. According to a doctor his condition was very very serious. The doctor would not say any more.

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