REVISIT: Feature: Portrait of a generation of Shan
Special to Shan Herald Agency for News (S.H.A.N.)
In a dimly lit corner of a bar in Chiang Mai’s red
light district, Hseng Hawm greets the approaching
customers, “Sawasdee kha”. She guides them to a table
and sits with them as another girl takes the guests’
Her sweet and demure smile grabs the attention of the
guests, from the karaoke music played in the bar —to
Her fair skin looked smooth. But make up didn’t cover
all of the little scars on her face. Her black blouse
and skirt fitted well with her youthful body. Hseng
Hawm is only 20. The dark color of the bar’s red light
on her clothes made her look older and aloof.
According to her, she is a waitress in the bar. As she
sits and talks with the customers, she knew she was
doing more. “I am only doing this as part of my job,”
she told one of the guests who speaks her native
She spoke with confidence. With her head up and a
smile flashing her white teeth, she looked at ease
with what she was doing.
But this didn’t hide her anxiety. She asked to be
excused after an hour of conversation. She explained
that she and the other waitresses have to hide from
the police, who are inspecting the employees of
another bar nearby.
She hurried to an exit door trying not to lose her
poise. In an instant, she was gone.
Noom Hseng, 24, who comes at the bar “from time to
time” said like Hseng Hawm, he also has to run away
from police inspectors. After passing through the
border from Burma, Noom Hseng Sow said his “papers”
allow him only to work in the factory and in
He works at a Shan organization based in Chiang Mai.
He said it has been difficult for him and the likes of
Hseng Hawm to freely live the way they want to.
Everyday, they have to deal with some realities like
fearing the possibility that the police might arrest
them. Their movement is limited.
But Noom Hseng said his difficulty in Chiang Mai is
already heaven to those who are left in his hometown.
“I only realized many things about freedom here, there
are so many good things about life that I did not know
about back there,” he said.
For 29-year old Awn Tai, Noom Hseng’s friend, running
away from the police has already become part of who
they are as a people. They are not only fleeing from
the Thai police. They also have fled from their
homeland. He said they are a generation who runs away
to be free.
Awn Tai is a translator of Shan literature into Thai.
Having been in Thailand for the last 10 years, his
Thai is fluent. Also, he holds a Thai ID card, unlike
Noom Hseng and Hseng Hawm. But he is very much a Shan
in his ways. He said, he longs to go back to Shan
“Life here is difficult, but we want to be free from
poverty and fear, that’s why we are here,” he said.
According to estimates from the Shan Human Rights
Foundation (SHRF) and the Shan Women Action Network
(SWAN) there are at least 150,000 Shan refugees in
Thailand since 1996 up to 2002.
Most of them came from forced relocation sites in
Central Shan State.
In a 2003 study by the SHRF, it was shown that there
is a direct relation between the abuses committed by
the Burmese government in the forced relocation sites
to the number of refugees moving out from those areas.
Hseng Hawm’s family, now in Chiang Mai, came from
Kunghing, an area where most of the refugees came
from. But she doesn’t want to talk about what was left
behind there. While she missed her hometown, she said,
she will not go back there until the situation will
Her 21 year old friend, Mawn, another waitress, said
if she has a choice she would not be in the bar.
“Every night I shed tears of fear, of uncertainty,”
she said. Mawn, who sat with Hseng Hawm at the table
before the police came, said she looks forward to
another day for hope.
Unlike Hseng Hawm, who wants to be a tourist guide,
Merng has her eyes on an ambition.
“I wanted to be a teacher. Since I was a kid and even
up to now I still wanted to be a teacher. I will be a
teacher,” she said.
As a waitress, Merng earns 2, 000 Bt ($50) every month
with free food and bed space. She said she is going to
try her best to earn more money so she could go back
But Mawn, went up to primary school only way back in
Kehsi, a township in Central Shan State. She knew she
would have a hard time going back to school. But she
said what else she would look up to but her dreams.
Like Mawn, Charm Tong is also a young Shan woman. But
at 24, Charm Tong is probably one of the most
prominent Shan personalities. Her father was a leader
of a resistance group fighting the Burmese military
until his death.
Charm Tong is popular because her effort to help young
migrant Shan people like her to get education and her
contribution in exposing Rangoon’s human rights
violations had been recognized by international award
She now travels to other countries to share about the
Shan people’s struggle for freedom. She has become an
inspiration to both young and old Shan people in
But Charm Tong came to Thailand when she was 6 inside
a basket with her younger sister on a horse back. She
has to climb up with difficulties in growing up just
like the other young Shan youth. She attended the
school of a Shan teacher in a village along the
Now a woman of strength and influence, Charm Tong
flaunts only humility and sincerity. She said growing
in a conflict zone has greatly influenced who she is
Like Charm Tong, Hsai Lao, 24, also saw a turbulent
Burma in his life. But unlike Mawn, he has graduated
from High School. His English is good, thanks to years
of education in an American school in Rangoon.
He is in Thailand to scout for a school that could
offer him a scholarship. While still out of school,
Hsai Lao helps a Shan organization for its English
As he drove a motorcycle he borrowed from a friend,
Hsai Lao talked about his determination to study no
matter what it takes. “But it has to be in Thailand so
that I could work for Shan organizations at the same
time,” he said.
“I still do not know if I can reach my goal, but I
will do anything to get it,” he said.
Hsai Lao, in one of his reflections in coming out of
Burma, once wrote that he is not like other young
people who go out to other countries to become rich
and never come back.
“I will be back, yes, but I have to have education
from outside. I can help my country more if I am
educated,” he said.
Hsai Lao, Hseng Hawm, Noom Hseng, Awn Tai, Mawn and
Charm Tong, six different young men and women. They
are six images of the Shan youth in Thailand having
different pains and different joys. They have their
own story to tell.
But they all are the same: the youth of a displaced
people — running away from a repressive country.
They have the same language, history and homeland.
And they all look up to something, for one thing, —
a brighter future for themselves and their country. (Walter Balane in Chiang Mai, Thailand/October 2005)