Feature Image of Chin State, Myanmar by khaipi from Flikr.
Previously: My students inspire me to begin collecting stories about refugee resettlement. I arrange these stories according to date of arrival in Australia, stories that start in Vietnam, Romania, China, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Ethiopia and now Myanmar.
I sit facing a huge TV screen that seems to occupy the width of an entire wall. Displayed on the mantelpiece are little bars of soap with sewing pins stuck all the way round their oval edges. Ribbons have been wound around the pins to imitate the form of a pretty patterned basket. Plastic flowers and leaves poke up from the basket, completing the fragrant ensemble.
These objects are the handiwork of Robert’s wife, Mary, a tiny demure lady with a sweet smile who serves us coffee in short squat cups on matching saucers. She abstains because she is fasting. If fasting were a road to weight loss, I ought to be the one fasting. But that’s not what fasting is. So I drink the coffee, thick and sweet with condensed milk.
Sounds of children laughing and splashing in a bath drift to us from the dark corridor. Before long, a little boy, hair wet and freshly combed, emerges and asks for permission to play on the iPad. Technology really crosses cultural borders.
Robert has just been telling me of the difficulties of being a Chin person, a minority tribe in Myanmar. But his and Mary’s story is not dramatic and he knows Chin people in Adelaide who have been beaten and tortured and who now lay in the house all day unable to move. Perhaps it would be better for me to interview them, he suggests.
A few days later, Robert calls to give me Ling Ling Nu’s contact details. He tells me that Ling Ling Nu literally means ‘mother of Ling Ling’ and that it is customary for Chin mothers to adopt the name of their firstborn. How many times have I heard children in school yards call out ‘Jack’s Mum’ or ‘Jill’s Dad’ and wished I could do the same because I’ve forgotten names? What a marvellous naming system the Chin people have.
Ling Ling Nu lives in the last house in a row of historic stone cottages in the heart of Adelaide. While I wait for someone to answer my doorbell ring, I observe mechanics working in the garage opposite and, closer to where I stand, two standard rose bushes by the low chain link fence surviving in a small rectangle of soil surrounded by concrete.
A slender girl opens the door, welcomes me into the lounge and darts back into a doorway that leads to the rest of the house. Sofas line the two walls by the front door. A plasma TV occupies the far corner, leaving the vast centre of the room empty and stark. But the beautiful polished floorboards speak to me of spaciousness rather than want. I am in a sentimental mood, determined to see the best in everything and everyone.
There is only one window in the room. An old air-conditioning unit pokes through the bottom half of the window. Across the top of the window hangs a white flag emblazoned with a red cross.
Ling Ling Nu emerges from the doorway in a well-cut business jacket with matching pants in sturdy brown material. Her straight shoulder length hair is pulled back into a sensible ponytail, her face free of make-up. We shake hands. She introduces me to the girl who opened the door, Ah Len, her daughter.
‘I might not know some deep English words,’ says Ah Len, who will interpret for her mother. I reassure her that we will manage.
When I ask Ling Ling Nu where she comes from, she replies in English, ‘Chin State’ – which lies in the mountain ranges between India and Myanmar –‘Falam Village. Born 6 August 1966. Came to Australia 5 July 2011.’
In a pattern that continues for the rest of the interview, Ling Ling Nu speaks to Ah Len in their mother tongue and Ah Len interprets.
‘My mum has seven other siblings, including her then eight. Five girls and three boys. Mum is second. She is the only one of her siblings who came here. My youngest uncle, he’s coming next month. The oldest one, my aunt, she’s in New Delhi, India. Refugee.’
Ling Ling Nu’s given name is Za Dim Sung. She married Chan Hmung, also a Chin, on 12 October 1986. After their marriage, Za Dim lived with her parents in Kalamyo while Chan Hmung returned to the University of Mandalay to study History and Geology.
‘The government killed the money and the people were in hardship, so they demonstrated against the government,’ interprets Ah Len.
I do not understand this turn of phrase. Through subsequent research I learn that on 5 September 1987, without warning, the military junta under General Ne Win, demonetized the three highest banknote denominations: 25, 35 and 75 Kyat. The aim was to deal with massive inflation, and perhaps also to cripple armed ethnic groups such as the Karen and the Shan. No replacement notes were issued. Around 75% of the country’s currency was rendered worthless in one stroke. Riots erupted.
The following year, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s founding father, happened to return to Myanmar to care for her ailing mother. Her presence in the country was a powerful symbol that galvanized an angry populace. On 8 August 1988, she led the 8888 National Popular Pro-Democracy Protests.
At the University of Mandalay, Chan Hmung, a student leader, organized anti-government demonstrations. In the subsequent crackdown, he fled for his life. Meanwhile, Za Dim, who had also marched in Kalamyo, was arrested by the army and jailed overnight. Za Dim’s father was a police officer and his colleagues at the station recognized her. They released her and told her to flee.
She clambered aboard a merchant’s jeep heading out of town. Three men in the jeep, including the driver, were from the neighbouring border town of Tidim. The other twenty passengers were protestors fleeing from the army.
As the jeep neared security checkpoints, everyone except the driver alighted from the jeep. Guided by the two Tidim men, they continued their way by foot along jungle paths towards the border between Myanmar and India. When the jeep driver arrived in Tidim he instructed the town’s people to send food into the forest for his passengers. After trekking through the jungle for two and a half days, they arrived at the Tiau River, beyond which lay the Indian state of Mizoram.
‘She’s going to tell a bit about Mizoram,’ explains Ah Len. ‘Before the Englishmen came, there was no Mizoram.’
To be continued next Friday. This is part of the serial online release of Refuge, a collection of true stories of refugee resettlement. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.