Burma’s 60 years of ongoing civil war – the world’s longest – has driven what was once a wealthy regional power into one of the poorest countries in the world.
Endemic issues face Burma. With over 500,000 internally displaced people (IDP), a general lack of infrastructure, few education opportunities and poor healthcare, the people of Burma face many challenges.
Due to such challenges, many children have either become orphans at an early age or simply lost track of their parents.
One such orphan, a teenager named Saw Bleh Dah, highlights the difficulty of living in Burma.
Life is full of uncertainty for Saw Bleh Dah, a 13-years-old refugee boy. Bleh Dah was born in Ka Mar Hta village in Hlaingbwe Township of Karen State. He is the youngest son of seven. His father died when his mother was pregnant with him. By the age of twelve his mother had died leaving him and one of his sisters to live with their relatives.
But on the surface Bleh Dah appears as an everyday happy teen – a bright smile marks his thin face as he sits quietly – it would be hard to imagine that he is also the living product of civil strife in Burma.
Indeed Saw Bleh Dah’s is fortunate as far as Burma’s refugee orphans are concerned – he lives with his Aunt in Mae La refugee camp while many young children of his age would be living in an orphanage. Mae La is the biggest refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border and is home to an estimated 45,000 refugees from Burma who fled the country for different reasons; including attacks, fighting, forced labor, political persecutions and economic hardships.
Bleh Dah cannot remember his life in Burma – his earliest memories are of being a primary school student in the refugee camp.
“I didn’t remember anything back in Burma. When I started realize myself I was already four years old and attending primary school close to our house in Mae La camp.”
According to his relatives, Bleh Dah’s mother, Naw Tho Hei with two of her younger children, Bleh Dah and one of his sisters, came to Mae La refugee camp in 1997 after her husband died. Bleh Dah’s father, Saw Maung San died after being tortured by troops from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a breakaway Karen armed group allied with and sponsored by Burma’s military regime at the time.
It was hard for Bleh Dah’s mother to raise all her children after her husband died. In addition, fighting between the Burma Army and the Karen fighters, forced labor and excessive taxation imposed by troops from Burma army and their proxy militia’s, made the situation harder for Bleh Dah’s mother to earn enough living as a widow. So she came up to the border and lived as a refugee in Mae La.
Bleh Dah is now a teenager studying at fourth grade. He said that he likes studying, and when asked why, he compares being a student with being a cowboy.
“I like studying because I can be in the shade, if I am a cowboy, I will have to work under the hot sun. I don’t want to do that.” He said.
Bleh Dah said that he wants to become a construction engineer.
“When I grow up, I want to build big buildings and tall buildings. I want to be able to calculate how much material to use to build a building. I also like the safety uniform and the helmet.”
Bleh Dah’s said that he likes to play football with his friends every evening when he has free time. But he can’t afford a pair of soccer boot, or even sandals.
“I like playing, but I am not very good at it. I play bare foot because I don’t have any shoes. I have no money. I am wearing my sister’s slipper. The size is too big for my feet but I have no choice. Otherwise I have to walk barefoot.”
In refugee camp, basic food items are distributed by aids organizations but for personal or household use items, people in the refugee camp have to try cope with it on their own. Bleh Dah’s aunt has her own children to take care of and it is not easy to buy a new pair of slipper for Bleh Dah as there is no normal income.
Bleh Dah’s mother died of stomach cancer last year. He and his sister had to move to their aunt’s house after that. Bleh Dah said that he cried many times when his mother died and he still misses his mother now.
With his face down and turned away, he said.
“It’s been a year now but I still miss my mom, especially at night.”
Refugees in camps along the Thai border are not allowed to go out of the camp to work or to travel to other places. Bleh Dah said that living in refugee camp is boring during weekend or school holidays but he is happy playing with his friends or visiting his relatives within the camp.
“I’ve been outside the camp a few times, but I like it here in the camp. I have many friends to play with.”
Bleh Dah said that he doesn’t want to go back to Burma at all because he doesn’t have any one that he can depend on or that would give him warmth love and care as his mother.
Despite recent political changes in Burma, there are many children in Bleh Dah’s situation, if not worse, and living is a daily challenge.
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