Life on the Border Part 1: “My name is Mai Naww Hment…

…and I was born in Loi Kang village, Kutkai Township, Northern Shan State, Burma. When I was four years old, my family moved to Kutkai because there was fighting between the Burmese military and other ethnicities around my village.  The Kachin Independent Army (KIA) tried to recruit my oldest brother and sister as child soldiers. Being raised only by my mother, we had little money and my mother was often forced to sell her jewelry so that we could eat and have shelter. An early and vivid memory I have of this time was encountering a violent storm after we left our village. We all were carrying something when the storm came and it swept many things away from our arms, but luckily our lives were spared.

That journey was not the end of the difficulties. Our family could only speak our Ta’ang language and everyone in our new environment spoke a different language. We couldn’t communicate with anyone and that made it nearly impossible to be accepted, but we had to get on with our lives, and so my mother enrolled me in the local school. I was lucky that I have a supportive family that worked very hard to earn the money necessary to allow me to attend school. Even with their support I started working to contribute to my family’s income at ten years old because my mother fell down from a horse on the journey.  My older sisters and brothers also had to drop out from their education. In high school, I worked helping truck drivers load and unload cargo; it was hard physical work for a young boy. Additionally, education is being sold like a commodity in my community.  Students were expected to pay exorbitant tuition fees and many other “nameless donations” to the school. My family couldn’t pay for the tuition so I couldn’t take part in many activities. Therefore, I did not learn well from school and I was always upset and confused of how the school was running at that time. I studied hard even though there were many difficulties during my student life in Burma.

Learning to work hard at an early age has helped me to succeed; I was the first person in my community to graduate from high school with high scores and got a chance to go to university to study Computer Science. Before university, I earned very little money as a trucker smuggling from China to Burma. It was very dangerous situation for me as I was not old enough to drive and could be sent to jail.  However, I was lucky and was able to continue my studies.

I funded my undergraduate education by trading motorbikes from China to Burma as I needed to pay for my education and send money back home to support my mother and little brother.  Oftentimes it was difficult to balance work and study at the same time, but I was so determined to get my degree that I persevered. I wasn’t able to attend class for the whole day because I had to drive cargo in the afternoon. Even though my grades were just okay, I encouraged myself to become a smart person for my community and especially for my family. I was very proud of myself because I would be the first person who graduated in computer science. However, I felt very sad after finishing my first year; not only was there no Internet among the students but also for the tutors.

I really expected that everything would improve in the second year but it didn’t. We didn’t have enough tutors and equipment for the classroom. To be honest, most of the tutors are unqualified at teaching and providing technological support because they did not study Computer Science. I hesitate to express that I graduated from computer science without having Internet access at University.

I must also share one heartfelt incident from my undergraduate studies.  One instance I had to spend time convalescing from emergency medical treatment at the hospital during the period of my final exams. I would have missed the exam if my teacher had not taken me to the hospital when I lost consciousness.  I took my final exam at the hospital and I was very lucky that as a result I qualified to continue onto the master program. I will never forget the care and kindness shown to me from my teachers and professors when I was ill.  They supported me even after I got better and left university. Honestly, I sometimes feel that they are a part of my family.

Then I moved to Mandalay University for my master program. It was the first time as a computer student that I had access to the Internet but only for a very limited time, about two hours per week.  After the first year of the Master’s program in the Mandalay Division, I got in contact with Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization (TSYO) through a local Ta’ang community leader. I found that I was very interested in what they were trying to do and I made the decision to leave university, having a greater and more heartfelt interest in the mission of TSYO and wanting to get involved and support their activities sooner rather than later.

One of the main reasons that influenced my decision to leave school and to work more directly for my community was an almost fatal incident back in 2004.  While attending University and selling motorbikes between China and Burma, some of my friends and I were arrested on our journey by the military. They pointed their guns at us. One of the soldiers had his gun pointed directly at my forehead. Terrified about what might happen, I hurriedly kicked down my gear and took off as fast as I could on the motorbike. My head was cut by the barrel of the soldier’s gun and another soldier shot at me and missed. With blood gushing from my forehead and blood blinding my eyes, I narrowly managed to escape. Unfortunately, all of my friends were arrested by the military and I never saw any of them again. I still am unsure of their fate. This was the scariest experience of my life, and brought home to me the power that people with guns and their mal-intent to use them have over others. I realized that I wanted to do something to change this power structure, to do away with violence and live in peace. Since then I have always wished and wanted to work toward peace in Burma.”

To be continued–

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