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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 presence.
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
construction sites.
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
State, someday.
“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
to school.
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
giving bodies.
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
Thai-Burma border.
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
language works.
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)


Corruption inside bus No. 2075

Inside the crowded air-conditioned bus from Davao, the faces of the passengers looked weary and their eyes looked tired. At least 15 new passengers embarked from the busy, old Valencia City terminal. 

For a moment the vehicle looked like a wet public market, and then sounded like one.

The passengers settled in the vacant seats at the rear end of the bus, and then almost simultaneously released sighs of relief. 

It was probably the last air-con bus to leave for Cagayan de Oro before dinner.

It was not quite relieving, however, for others who have to stand as all seats were taken. Some others were left waiting eternally at the messy terminal.

Shortly after, the bus rolled off.

Still tired, most of the passengers were silent for a moment, and another. 

At the front portion of the bus, the conductor, a stocky middle-aged man with a rounded face, called on the passengers bound for Cagayan de Oro for tickets.

“Kinsa pa’y wala’y ticket diri?” he asked a column of “standing” passengers. Read More…

Tubil tales

At 2a.m. the city was asleep. The road was deserted.  The early morning breeze engulfed the highway to freezing point.


Manong David, wrapped in his thick coat, was chilling and has stammered when I hailed his motorela cab for home. He agreed to a pakyaw rate of P35, a win-win between his P40 offer and my P30 bargain. 


Even if he would have offered P50, I would have taken it. That’s definitely better than be left frozen and alone in the middle of Fortich Street early morning.


On the way, he talked of that road accident somewhere, then about the MILF, and then about trying to make both ends meet.


The casual exchange paused over a topic that seemed a suggestive attempt to make me feel guilty for haggling five pesos less. 


He said the oil prices are slowly taking his sanity. He is beginning to lose hope about being able to bounce back and be able to even cross the “boundary”.


Crossing the boundary is a need of every driver. He has to cross it to be able to pay rent and earn extra money above it to be able to live.


I was able to put out courteous responses. At one point, we were trying to analyze the root cause together, something like “while we are at this, the oil firms are bloating” stuff. Read More…

Exodus day

I fully anticipate this homecoming. But as in any exodus, the past two days and the next two days would be busiest.

I have to do packing, unpacking, throwing, storing and all other things any transient could go through.

The biggest part is adjusting, or in this case, readjusting to another work set up and environment.  I look forward to major changes on many aspects.

Moving from Bukidnon to Davao and back looks easy with the five hour trip in an air-conditioned bus. But its not just the travel. It’s the whole idea of moving out-moving in.

I really hope it will go smoothly.  I wish.

PAL says lower airfare got the firm more passengers

The Philippine Airlines’ decision to lower the fare for travel to and from Mindanao has actually earned their firm more passengers as those who used to travel by land and sea could now afford to fly.“We got a portion of that market because our airfare is now almost equal to that of surface travel,” Philippine Airlines’ vice president for Mindanao Dominguo Duerme said. Read the rest of the report on

Resource projects dominate EAGA biz matching

Business interests mainly on biodiesel, palm oil plantations, and mining dominate projects eyed for business matching at the first ever BIMP-East ASEAN Growth Area investment conference here.

About 28 of the 39 projects were clustered under the natural resource development sector, according to a list provided by the conference secretariat to reporters.

Only 11 were classified under tourism development, transport, infrastructure and communication. Four of the projects are into mining, including another mining project in Zamboanga Sibugay, two in Compostela Valley under the Philippine Mining Development Corporation, and another one on coal in West Kalimantan in Indonesia.  Read the rest of the report on

BizTalk: Shaping up to cut cost

I haven’t covered the Mindanao Shippers’ Conference in June but in the sidelines I heard one of the organizers talk about the high cost of freight as among the bigger concerns there.

I was reminded of this when I interviewed Maritine Industry Authority officer in charge Virgillio Armonia last week.

He said small shippers should pool their cargo to minimize freight cost as shipping lines charge by container van.

Armonia stressed that the practice for now is costly because most of the shippers are not organized, as this report on presents.

What’s the significance of this? The small shippers referred to are mostly growers and marketers of fruits and vegetableproducts. Many of them consolidate ouput from small to medium scale farmers in countryside communities. Read More…