Pa-O "Relocated" to Thailand: Views from Within
The Pa-O are one of the ethnic minorities of Burma. They live primarily in the Taunggyi area of southwestern Shan State. A smaller number live in the Thaton area of Mon State in Lower Burma. The Pa-O in the Thaton area have become "Burmanized" -- like their neighbors the Mon and Karen, they have adopted Burmese language, dress and customs. The Pa-O in southwestern Shan State have learned to speak Shan, but have maintained their own distinct language and customs, including their traditional dark blue or black dress.
Among the earliest Pa-O arrivals in Thailand may have been slaves captured by the Karenni and sold into Siam in the mid and late 1800s. During the 1880s, the Shan States were in chaos, the local princes at war with each other. Large numbers of people fled, many into northern Thailand, very likely including some Pa-O. The Pa-O also went to Thailand as traders of cattle as well as herbal medicines and other trade goods. More recently they have gone as refugees.
Forced relocations have been particularly sweeping in Mon, Karen and Shan States -- those states where most of the Pa-O live. The Pa-O Nationalist Army signed a ceasefire with SLORC in 1991, but because the Pa-O live in many of the areas where other rebel groups are still active they have been swept up in the forced relocations and human rights abuses for which the ruling junta has become infamous. These are their stories.
TaSee Charaa Mu
Former medic (about 38 years old)
My home town is near Hsi Hseng in southern Shan State. I was a tea trader so I went north to Panglong area to buy tea. One day I met a friend. She told me that if I wanted to be a medic the training would be free. So I went with her and joined the Communist (Red) Pa-O army. I was told I would work at the central hospital, but we were always moving around in the forest. There were no people. It was a place for bears and tigers. I wanted to go home, but I could not; I was sad and often cried. I was wounded.
When I left the Red Pa-O I stayed at Pan Ta Wee, a Shan village, east of Hsi Hseng toward the Salween River. There were about 200 houses. I stayed there for several years and I served as a medic to earn money. I got married and had eight children. Two of my girls (four and six years old) died after being sick for only a few days.
A unit of the Burmese army was stationed nearby. The Shan rebel army came through our village. They thought we were cooperating with the Burmese army. The leader of the Shan soldiers gave a threatening letter to the village headman. After the Shan left, the headman informed the Burmese soldiers, who promised to protect the village.
The headman then sent a note to the Shan saying, "If you want food, we have no rice only chilis [bullets]."A short time later, the Burmese commander who had promised to protect the village left with most of his men. Only 15 soldiers stayed in the camp near the village.
The next night about 10:00 P.M. the Shan soldiers came into the village. They surrounded the village headman's house, took him prisoner, and beat him. He said, "If you came to fight the Burmese soldiers, there are only 15 of them." They told him that they had come to kill the villagers. They shot him and his family, including his children and grandchildren. The soldiers shot people and burned houses. Those who tried to run away were captured and brought back and made to sit in a group. The commander told the soldiers, "That is enough, leave enough for seed." But the young soldiers said, "We need to kill more!" He shouted back, "Enough! Enough!" But the soldiers began shooting the villagers. I saw them fall over one by one. The man next to me was shot and fell over on me. Another man was yelling in pain and one of the Shan bayoneted and shot him. Then he was silent. They also killed people like chickens -- they cut their throats.
I had a bullet wound in my upper arm. So I pretended to be dead. They bayoneted me in the side. I tried to stay quiet. When they went away at about 1:00 A.M. I covered the wound in my side with a towel, but I was still bleeding. I saw that all the houses were burned down. Many had old or handicapped people in them. The soldiers didn't seem to be human. They killed about sixty people. Some villagers from nearby came and gave me an injection to stop the bleeding. They took me to Lan Kae hospital were I was given medicine. The bayonet had penetrated almost to my heart. The doctor told me I was very lucky. During the winter season when it is cool, even now, I have pain.
My life is too hard. I am very poor, but I want to stay in a peaceful place. I was unable to bring my horse and household things from our camp on the border.
Sometimes I think I will go crazy.
Former soldier, traditional healer (62 years old)
A long time ago (late 1960s, early 1970s) when I was a Pa-O soldier, I fought against Shan soldiers near Moung Koun, northeast of Taunggyi in southern Shan State. The Shan wanted to control all of the rebel groups fighting against the Burmese army in Shan State. So we fought against the Shan as well as the Burmese army.
I and my friend were 2nd lieutenants in the Pa-O army. We were staying at a house when we heard two men come up the steps at 4:00 A.M. The door opened and one of them asked the old woman who lived there, "Is anyone else sleeping here?" She replied, "I'm the only one here." The man said, "Don't lie to me, if you do I will beat you. I know somebody is here."
We were sleeping with our rifles. When they came in the door they saw us. As they stepped back my friend shot them and they fell. We fled the house. There was heavy fighting between our soldiers and theirs. One of our men was shot in the face and killed. The Shan had more soldiers than we did, but they retreated when we killed two more of their men.
One of my friends was very lucky. He was hit, but the bullet lodged in a packet of sugar cane in his pack. I told him he was fortunate to have gone to the market earlier in the day.
One time we fought with the Burmese soldiers near Paglong. A passing Chinese trader overheard us planning our attack and told the Burmese captain. The captain replied, "They won't attack. They are afraid of us." We did attack and captured seven of their rifles.
I had joined the Pa-O army after Bo San Thein was killed (in 1968) by a Shan officer. All of the important Pa-O leaders were in prison and those now leading the Pa-O began to listen to the Communists whe were sent to win them over. When the Pa-O leaders were released and returned, the Pa-O army split into two groups -- the Nationalist Pa-O and the Communist (Red) Pa-O. They began fighting each other in 1973. I stayed on with the Red Pa-O. We wore Mao Tse Tung pins on our uniforms. After six months I got sick and retired. The Burmese soldiers were happy that we fought each other -- like dogs biting each other -- instead of them. I was a soldier for seven years.
I went back to my home village. Some of the Red Pa-O soldiers surrendered to the Burmese army and they knew that I had gone home. Because I was afraid they might tell the Burmese soldiers where I was, I left and went to another village.
I thought about why the Pa-O fight each other. I don't want to be involved in this situation. Even now when I think about the Pa-O and why they fight and kill each other I am very sad.
I settled in a village on the west side of the Salween River in southern Shan State. In 1978, the Burmese army told the headman that we would have to move to an army-controlled "relocation area." We decided to move to the border near Thailand instead. It took us three days of traveling and we had to leave most of our things behind, but it was very nice there. There was good soil beside the stream; we could grow many crops including rice, chilies, corn, and even coffee and tea on the hillsides. A detachment of the Pa-O army had a camp on a hill overlooking the village.
In March of 1984 Khun Sa, the drug lord, attacked the camp and village. The camp was burned and our houses were looted. We fled across the border into Thailand. After six months, however, the Thai authorities forced us to leave. We crossed back into Burma, this time into Karenni State. We stayed there, farming rice, for four years. The valley where our village was located was attacked and occupied by the Burmese army and again we fled across the border into Thailand, this time to an uninhabited forested area. It had a good water supply and we cleared the hillsides to plant rice. After about five years of fighting the Burmese army captured all the rebel positions on the border. They began to send patrols into Thailand. We were afraid, especially for our women, so we moved again, a kilometer or two farther into the Thai forest. Still the Burmese soldiers came, asking for food and taking our chickens, paying us only half of what they were worth. We also lost all of our horses and cows (about twenty). They would wander off at night, a few at a time, to return to our old village location where water and grass were plentiful. The Burmese soldiers took them prisoner and wouldn't return them. In the middle of the rainy season of 1996 we moved to a nearby village where the headman let us stay. We have been here since then. We have moved many times, but we have stayed together. We are safe now.
I learned traditional Pa-O medicine by studying books and talking with the monks in a monastery. I have practiced it for many years. I also learned about Pa-O literature at the monastery. I would like to pass on my knowledge to the younger generation but they don't seem to be interested.
I am old and have no one to take care of me.
Sometimes I have no food.
Pa-O "Relocated" to Thailand
Former soldier (about 40 years old)
I joined the Pa-O army when I was 15. We fought the Burmese army. They had newer guns and better equipment, so after visiting my friend's uncle in Taunggyi and my family village, my friend and I joined the Burmese army at the end of the rainy season. I was 16. I was a soldier in the Burmese army for 7 years.
I went through 6 months of basic training and 1 month of commando training. I was young and enjoyed shooting my rifle.
I traveled extensively and fought with many of the ethnic rebel groups: Shan, Wa, and Lahu near the Communist base of Panghsang (near the Chinese border). I captured many rifles and was promoted to sergeant.
I wasn't allowed to go home to visit my family for seven years. When I was finally given a leave I went home. I didn't return. I met another friend who was in the Karen army, so I joined them. After seven or eight months, we met up with the Pa-O army and I rejoined them.
After the 1988 uprising we were sent south along with other ethnic rebel soldiers to help the Karen defend their territory against the Burmese army. There was heavy fighting during next several months. We had to retreat from most of the positions we tried to defend.
In April 1989 we went north to karenni State. Again we fought the Burmese army. I was wounded by shrapnel in the back and was taken first to a Karenni hospital and then to the Thai hospital in Mae Hong Son. The piece of metal is still there. They said it was dangerous to remove. From Karenni State we went back north to the central headquarters area south of Taunggyi. I was back in Karenni territory when the PNO signed a ceasefire with SLORC in April 1991. I joined the new, much smaller, Pa-O Peoples Liberation Organization (PPLO) a few months later and stayed on the border for another three years. I liked being a soldier and fighting. I helped train soldiers at the border camp, but there was little to do. In early 1994, I and most of the other soldiers left.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.