Saskatchewan·FIRST PERSON

My family escaped oppression in Myanmar, but as long as the violence continues I can never truly be free

One day the Myanmar Army came to my village and attacked us without warning. From then on, I understood why I was not allowed to enjoy my childhood in freedom. 

Myanmar military has attacked many villages of Karen, an Indigenous people

A Karen child walks through the jungle at Htoo Hta village in Karen state in the Kler Lwee Hut district of Myanmar. The Karen are an Indigenous people of Myanmar. (Wah Du)

This First Person piece is written by Kee Mae Paw, who came to Canada from Thailand as a Karen refugee in 2006.

For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

One of my earliest memories is of my mother asking me not to wander off by myself.

"Child, if you leave my side I could lose you forever."

At that time I did not know what she meant. Then one day the Myanmar Army came to my village and attacked us without warning. From then on, I understood why I was not allowed to enjoy my childhood in freedom. 

The world has been watching the actions of the military in Myanmar, also known as Burma, over the last few weeks. Headlines in Canada tell the story of a power hungry military eager to take control of the country by any means necessary. 

Even before the world started paying attention to the military coup, the shutting down of internet and the violent clashes with pro-democracy protesters, I was paying close attention to life in Karen State near the Thailand border. After years of relative peace because of a ceasefire, the military had recently started attacking innocent villages and forcing the Indigenous Karen people to flee into the jungle.

I was haunted by an image circulating of a young boy. He looks no older than four. He has mud on his face and is straining under the weight of a heavy basket. The photo was taken in the last couple of months, but it instantly transports me to my own childhood. 

A Karen boy carries a basket in the jungle at Htoo Hta village in the Kler Lwee Hut district of Myanmar. Kee Mae Paw says the image reminds her of her own childhood as part of the Karen minority in Myanmar. (Say Say Eh)

While kids in Canada were learning to ride a bike or painting with pudding at pre-school, I was living in a constant state of anxiety, knowing the sound of a buffalo horn or clapping bamboo meant I had to run for my life. My family would hide in the jungle with only what we could carry on our backs.

The promise of "freedom" from this constant fear finally led my family and their friends to leave our village and make the dangerous one-week journey by foot to a refugee camp on the Thai/Myanmar border.

We discovered life in a refugee camp came with a measure of safety, but we still didn't know the "freedom" we wanted so desperately. The camp was overcrowded and we weren't allowed to leave. The food rations we were given each month never felt like enough.   

In 2006, my family experienced physical freedom. We resettled in Regina and for the first and only time in my life, I felt I could call someplace home.

We were warmly welcomed by generous Canadians. I was never officially a citizen of the country I was born in, but I finally obtained my Canadian Citizenship in 2013. I can finally say I am legally a citizen of the world. 

I no longer live in fear that someone is coming to kill me and my family. I don't wake up to the sound of shelling and bombing. I have full access to education of my own choice, even though finances are a small obstacle. Every day, I enjoy the freedom I often dreamed of as a child and am able to do activities with my family without fear.

Kee Mae Paw, front centre, takes part in a No More Stolen Sisters march in Regina. (Submitted by Kee Mae Paw)

I feel physically safe and cared for here in Canada, but at the same time, I can never truly be free. While I'm physically safe, mentally I can't help feeling guilty enjoying life in Canada when I know there are so many people back in Myanmar, including family members, who are suffering right now at the hands of the military.

The memories haunt my dreams. I find myself back in the village where I was born. It's been more than 14 years, but I still hear the cries of the children, elderly people and mothers during the attack on my village. 

Since the beginning of this year, the Myanmar military has attacked many Karen villages. It has displaced more than 4,000 Karen villagers, killed at least eight people and injured many more, according to locals who spoke to Al-Jazeera. It is extremely cold at this time of year, making life even more difficult for the displaced people. Above that, COVID-19 and the closing of the Thai border have made delivering aid to these desperate people even more difficult. 

I wake in the morning and check international news sites to see the latest news. When I'm trying to do my school work, my thoughts keep drifting to family still in Myanmar. The atrocities there make the Canadian headlines once in a while, but they are competing with the pandemic, American politics and problems much closer to home for most Canadians. 

The only way I'll ever feel truly free is if the people in Myanmar can live in peace. Until then, I'll write letters to the Canadian government, asking it to put pressure on Myanmar. I'll spread news out of Karen State and try to make Canadians understand what is happening. I'll speak for all the four-year-olds like me who are right now living in fear in the jungles of Myanmar. 

I look fine from the outside, but inside I am filled with a deep sadness. Being only physically free is not freedom at all.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Kee Mae Paw came to Canada from Thailand as a Karen refugee in 2006. She is studying international studies at the University of Regina.