11 May 2008

Meet a Smile in Myanmar's diaspora

Ati Nurbaiti

NAI NAI: JP/Ati NurbaitiNai Nai, her friend said, "is worried sick again." The young woman is busy collecting donations to send to family and friends in Yangon, the old capital stuck in the middle of the area hardest hid by the cyclone, the Irrawaddy Delta.

With her friends at the Bangkok office where she works at a media organization, Nai Nai had just heard the news that barely two weeks after the Cyclone Nargis hit her homeland, further rain storms had been predicted, while survivors still had no proper shelter. The other day she sounded gay on the phone, saying she had heard good news from home -- only the roof had flown off in the disaster.

On a daily basis, Nai Nai, 32, is indeed a cheerful woman.

But behind the friendly eyes and smiles on the faces of Myanmarese living overseas, is a sense of their resignation to being unable to help. When the cyclone hit, a few million exiles, migrants, refugees and others on the run had to bear the pain of waiting for news to arrive from home.

One email sent to The Jakarta Post from a Bangkok-based researcher began on a happy note. "My parents in Rangoon (Yangon) are fine," it said. "But I don't know about my relatives in Bogalay." He was referring to the coastal town where authorities said 95 percent of homes were destroyed.

One family's story reveals further just what separation means for those in diaspora. On the surface, the educated among them, not the refugees and migrant workers, have comfortable lives in cities in Thailand, Australia, the United States and other countries. For Nai Nai, migration meant dashed dreams, and more.

"My father had to officially separate from my mother," she said. Divorce became the only way to save everyone, as her father was a party executive within the National League for Democracy.

Nai Nai herself is not in exile, but she will only give me her nickname.

She graduated from high-school with flying colors, consistent with her earlier grades, her father said. Her goal was to continue on to medical school and become a surgeon -- but the authorities, who considered her family a political enemy, got wind of her aspirations.

"They approached me," says Zin Linn, her father.

"They said your daughter can enter medical school if you quit politics." He decided he could not leave the party that had swept to victory in the 1990 elections, which lead to the subsequent house arrest of chairwoman Aung San Syu Kyi.

Her father's refusal ended Nai Nai's dreams, and she said she was "very angry" when she found about the situation later from her mother. She took up studying English instead, "but I never had time for class, I copied my friends' notes," she said. Skipping classes was no fun; Nai Nai had to work.

"She became the family breadwinner," Zin Linn said.

Zin Linn was taken to jail, and her mother could not continue teaching. Not unlike under Indonesia's New Order, the government creatively and effectively used family harassment against dissidents.

"My mother's students were intimidated," Nai Nai said, and they stopped coming.

The family home in Yangon moved from time to time; as a "political family" which would bring trouble, landlords would ask them to leave, or extort them with higher rent fees, Nai Nai said.

Eventually, Nai Nai joined her father in Thailand; and achieved a scholarship for a masters degree in education.

"I spend weekends with him, we just talk," she said. She said one sister had fortunately managed to get a passport, and that occasionally half of the family reunited.

She said her mother gradually began to teach again. "The monks come to our house to learn English," Nai Nai said, adding that her sisters are now helping to teach.

"They teach children of (former and current) political prisoners," Nai Nai said. It was the least they could do, having known the hardship of such stigmatized families.

Fragmenting the populace is always an effective way for abusive rulers, and in Myanmar, one method to achieve this is by nurturing the mindset that some are less loyal to the motherland than others.

Even if Nai Nai's family had more political awareness than others, they were still of the dominant ethnic group, the Burmese -- who were taught that the minorities forever demanding autonomy were a "threat" to the union of Myanmar.

"I never knew about this ethnic issue," Nai Nai said. Then, one day, as she was about to take up further university studies, she said a fellow student found she was Burmese -- "and she wouldn't speak to me again." It turned out the other student was from one of the minority ethnic groups.

Most Burmese remain similarly oblivious of decades-old simmering resentment against them, she said.

"I only understood how the Shan (minority) suffered at the hands of the military from my aunt, who volunteered to teach there."

The Karens, the Shan, the Mon and many other groups accuse the junta of "ethnic genocide", which is achieved through forced expulsion of whole communities whenever the military decides to take over their land, either for their food supplies or their projects.

A book was recently published on the "Burmanization" of the Muslim minorities, mainly the Rohingya near the border with Bangladesh.

But Nai Nai remembers her student days when poetry, plays and newspapers were heavily censored.

It's not only the ethnic groups' identity the junta wants to wipe out, she said. The regime "wants to end Burmese culture."

Experts in Bangkok explained the values instilled in the populace, including the belief that only the military can protect Myanmar, coupled with the fear of outward dissent.

Nai Nai says she has no idea what the future holds for her.

But then her name means "nine nine" -- a lucky number in Myanmar.

She said her parents hoped her nickname would help her "pass all obstacles" -- and a grin spread across her face.[end]

The writer recently participated in a fellowship covering Myanmar as part of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance. This article published on The Jakarta Post, Sun, 06/01/2008