From Orphan to Soldier, another life in Shan State
His parents were murdered by the SPDC, now a young Shan man becomes a soldier and future leader of his people.
By Antonio Graceffo
He lives his life surrounded by landmines, trapped on one side by Burmese soldiers who would kill him if they had the chance and on the other side, by Thai police who would arrest him as an illegal alien. His entire world is approximately two miles long and eighty feet wide, along a fortified ridge top, where the soldiers, orphans, widows, amputees, and refugees, men, women, and children wage a defensive war, praying for the day that the SPDC reign of terror will end.
Tong Yi is only 21 years old, but he has seen more than many people twice his age. In 1986 the SPDC burned his village and drove the villagers out.
“It sounded like a battle, but only one side was shooting. We didn’t have any weapons. Soldiers were shooting the men who ran away. Some people were captured and made to work as porters. Like slaves, they had to work for free, carrying weapons and ammunition to kill other Shan people.”
“The SPDC soldiers gang raped some girls in our village. I saw SPDC take one woman, 40 years old, and raped her. They tied her up in the house and burned it.”
Tong Yi’s parents were away from the village, out in the rice fields, so today, he doesn’t know if they are alive or dead. He has one brother who would be twenty-five now, but they haven’t had any contact since that terrible day, more than ten years ago.
“Some villagers went to city, some to the jungle, others escaped to Thailand.”
Shan monks found Tong Yi in the jungle and took him to Thailand.
“It took us three months walking through the jungle to get to the border. Every morning, the monks went begging for food and they shared it with me.”
Tong Yi spent the next five years serving as a novice monk in a Wat in Thailand. At the temple Tong Yi learned to read for the first time.
“Back in the village, we didn’t have a school.”
There are approximately 1.5 million Shan people living in Northern Thailand, where they are referred to as Tai Yai, belonging to the Tai ethnic group. Many of the military and political leaders inside of Shan State received their education at temples in Thailand. Thai is a lingua franca among the Shan nationalities (ethnic groups living within Shan State include Pa-o, Palaung, and Lahu). The monks at Tong Yi’s temple were Shan, so they were able to teach him Shan literacy in addition to Thai.
For most boys from Shan State, the only opportunity to learn to read and write their native tongue is either at the school in Loi Tailang or a Shan temple on the Thai side of the border.
The Shan spoken language is about 60% similar to Thai, so it was not difficult for Tong Yi to become fluent. The two languages use distinct alphabets, which although both derived from Pali (Sanskrit) are extremely different. Tong Yi learned to read Thai as well as Shan, which is a great accomplishment.
“The Thai police don’t ask children for an ID card. But once I turned 15 I had to leave Thailand.”
Since his village was gone and his family was dead, Tong Yi went to live at Shan State Army (SSA) headquarters, at Loi Tailing. On the military base there is a temple, a school with nearly 1,000 students (250 of whom are orphans), and a village for IDP Internally Displaced Persons, which is currently giving shelter to 350 families.
At age 15, Tong Yi entered a school for the first time in his life. In Loi Tailang, however, it is not unusual to see teenagers attending elementary school, since most of them didn’t have a school in their village before coming to live under the protection of the SSA army. Some boys are as old as 24 when they finish high school.
For the most part, once people have taken refuge at Loi Tailang, it would not be safe for them to return to Burmese controlled areas. If the SPDC knew that these people had been to Loi Tailang they would be subject to arrest, torture, imprisonment, and possibly execution because they have had contact with the rebels. Most of the Shan don’t have a Burmese identity card anyway, so returning to the interior of Burma to work or attend university wouldn’t even be a possibility.
Fortunately, an outside NGO established the SSSNY, School for Shan State Nationality Youth, a kind of college open to the best and the brightest of any ethnicity living in Shan State. The school is fully sponsored by donations and only accepts a limited number of students. Tong Yi was lucky enough to qualify for one of 36 spots. This year, because of budget and security problems, only 24 Shan youngsters will have the opportunity to attend SSSNY. Said another way, only twenty-four children, of the nearly 8.5 million inhabitants of Shan State will have access to higher education.
Lack of access to education is just one more human cost of this long and destructive war, which has been ragging in secret for more than forty years.
In the nine month long SSSNY course, Tong Yi and his classmates attended intensive classes, taught entirely in English, with foreign teachers.
Many of the students were orphans. Others didn’t know if their families were alive or dead.
“They have no contact with their family. Farmer families don’t know about telephones.”
Thanks to the kind intervention of the foreign teachers, one SSSNY student was reconnected with his younger brother he hadn’t seen since his parents were murdered. The boy was now 16 years old, but living a terribly difficult life as an exploited undocumented alien.
“His brother was alive, but working illegally as a construction worker in Thailand. He was earning exactly enough to eat but couldn’t save anything and had no education.”
Tong Yi speaks excellent English now and works for the foreign department of the Shan State government. He is extremely bright and enjoys reading. He has an insatiable curiosity about the outside world, but because he is officially a stateless person, his reality is limited to the confines of Loi Tailang.
Tong Yi wanted to send this message out to the world.
“I hope some day all Shan people will have freedom and peace. I hope the American people will help us. Now we are waiting for the US or other countries to come to help. We are far away from the international community, so very few foreigners can come here. That is why we are suffering at the hands of the SPDC.”
The Shan have respect for Thai king and for Thailand but the other group they talk about is the Americans. To a man, they have all asked me when the Americans will come to help them.
I didn’t want to tell them the Americans won’t come until the Shan discover oil.
Antonio Graceffo (USA): Host, writer, and fixer for American television
Adventure and martial arts author, Antonio Graceffo has lived in Asia for more than six years, publishing four books, available on amazon.com and several hundred articles in magazines and websites around the world. He has worked as a consultant and writer for shows on the History and Discovery Channel and appears on camera in “Digging for the Truth,” and “Human Weapon.” For the last several months, Antonio has been embedded with the Shan State Army rebels in Burma. Antonio is host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” The latest episode, shot inside of Burma with the Shan State Army, is running on youtube, click here. http://youtube.com/watch?v=rCjNaHnk7Jw Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com
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Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa