Young ‘dragons’ seek to empower the Pa-O community

Monday | 27 June 2011 | Thea Forbes

Pa-O women selling vegetables in Burma. Photo: Wikipedia
Mae Sot (Mizzima) – Nang and Ingin don’t look like dragons. The 19-year-old Pa-O girls from Shan State in Burma appear rather shy. But they get fired up when encouraged to talk about how the education programme they are taking could empower their Pa-O community back home in the hills of Burma.

It’s a myth, of course. The girls grew up with the tale of dragons and their people’s origin through the union of a dragon lady and a 'weiza', a supernatural being. Even today, their sense of dragon origin and belonging to the Pa-O community—said to number between one and two million people spread over more than three Burmese states—is reinforced by the history they have learned during an innovative education programme on the Thai side of the Burmese border.

Nang and Ingin offered Mizzima an insight into their personal quest for empowerment—one that involved running away from their hill village in order to gain the skills and knowledge to become teachers and then return. A sense of Pa-O identity is an important part of the mix in a programme currently training close to a dozen girls.

Their mothers still wear turbans in the shape of a dragon's head; their fathers a turban that resembles the weiza's tail. But the two girls are young, modern and don’t want to wear the headdress, not here anyway. They don’t want to stand out given their illegal status in Thailand. They recounted grimly how at one point they had been arrested earlier in 2011 by the Thai police, but managed to get released. Little wonder that they ask to keep their location a secret and insist on pseudonyms.

Their programme is an effort by leaders of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) in exile who wish to educate their youth with the knowledge and skills to return to Shan State and teach and act as local leaders in the Pa-O community. The programme is in English, Burmese and the Pa-O language and follows a rigorous schedule and a breadth of subject matter aimed at empowering their fellow Pa-O dragons.

The political wing of the Pa-O people in Burma has gone through some changes since they went underground in 1949, a year after independence. They initially fought against the Shan State’s feudal princes but surrendered in 1958, after the princes relinquished their traditional powers, according to the Shan Herald News Agency.  They returned to arms under the PNLO name in 1966 to fight against Burma’s military rulers. After some name changes and change of alliances, they returned to using the name PNLO in December 2009.

Five years ago, the two girls, then just 14, made a pact. They fled together from their village in Shan state. Life for the two girls looked bleak due to the ongoing conflict between the Burmese Army and the Shan State Army – South in surrounding villages, and the poor state of education. At best they might have been set for an early marriage, motherhood, potato farming and poverty—if they weren’t killed in the fighting. Horrific tales abound of how girls are kidnapped by army soldiers and forced to act as porters and human shields, with the ever-looming threat of rape and murder.

In addition, the hills where their families have lived for generations under assualt wrecked by outsiders through toxic mining and widespread logging that displayed no concern for protecting the environment.

There was little to keep them tied to their village.

Initially, they traveled to Karen State where they attended school while staying with their Pa-O relatives. Ultimately though, due to lack of general resources and the pervading shadow of the government's censorship of learning material in schools, their pursuit of higher learning led them to leave their country. Thailand beaconed.

History provides a crucial part of the girls’ identity. Apart from the myth of their origin, the history they are taught in the programme in Thailand talks of a group of people who came down from Tibet to Thaton, now in Mon State, about 1,000 years BC. Burma, like most countries, has a troubled history of conflict and the subjugation of minority peoples, according to studies of the people. The Pa-O were no exception. At the turn of the first millennium, King Anawrahta of Pagan attacked Thaton and defeated the Mon monarch King Kakuta forcing the Pa-O to stop wearing their multi-coloured costumes and wear black, becoming his slaves. Many Pa-O fled into neighbouring states including Shan State. They continue to wear black today, or Burmese or western clothing.

History matters but there are modern subjects that the girls feel will more concretely help their ethnic community. Both see the need to help empower their community that is mostly engaged agricultural, but faces severe environmental challenges and the threat of fighting.

'I want to learn political science, human rights, environment, social studies and computer studies’, said Nang. ‘I will go back and share my education and have discussions with my people’.

Both girls say that people in their villages back home are unaware of even their basic human rights because of the lack of education, and that they want to change that. They said that most people in their villages only get as high as middle school.

Nang expresses concern at how the military government, prior to the 2010 election, had violated human rights and destroyed the environment.

‘I think in my village, which is very small, people know very little about their human rights…I will try to talk with my Pa-O people and the local government, Nang told Mizzima.

Ingin said that she wants to go back home in about four or five years to share her knowledge, and to teach. ‘They already know some, but they do not know a lot, they have no opportunity to know a lot’, she said.

Nang said she did not want to see another Saffron Revolution, a time when the army shot monks in Rangoon in 2007. ‘I saw so many people dying when the (government forces) were shooting at people, I felt so sad’, she said, recounting what she had seen in the media.

'I think in a long, long time we will get democracy', Nang said.

Nang's and Ingin's thirst for knowledge is evident, but it is their desire to devote their youth to learning so as to impart knowledge to their Pa-O that most impresses.

Ingin sees education as the path to pursuing democracy, but she thinks that at this point the Burmese government cannot help her.

'I don't think they can help. They should give ethnic people their rights, fairly, they should give education for free to young people. The schools are so bad. We only learn by memorizing; we don't have discussions’, she said.

The girls are aware of how under-funded and under-resourced the Burmese education system is. The new budget laid out by Burma's government has allocated approximately 4 per cent of the national budget to education and roughly a third to the military.

'For me, we are young people, so we should know about the political situation in our country. There are so many problems, I want to understand everything, and if I get some knowledge, I want to share it’, Ingin said.

'I think if we get democracy in our country, we can stop the conflicts’, said Ingin, reflecting on the destruction of war she had seen first-hand near her village in Shan State.

Both Ingin and Nang hope to become teachers when they return home, but whether their optimism and desire to spread new knowledge will succeed under the system that exists in Burma remains to be seen.

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