Imagined Homeland



I’m Karenni, I’m of the Karenni people, one of the ethnic groups in Burma, and I would like to talk to you about my homeland. As Karenni, we do have our own identity, we have our own history, and we have our own language, as well as culture. But the thing is that the term “homeland” – well I actually can’t really say that. I cannot say that this village that I was born in is my homeland.

Because of the civil war in Burma we’ve had to flee many times, we’ve had to escape our village, so when we talk about our homeland, we never really know what that means, you know?

Actually I was born in a village called Na On, this means, small farm. So I was born there but was only there for a year, because of the Burmese civil war. Battles frequently took place around our village. So my parents have told me, that one time a Burmese soldier came to our village and tried to fight, tried to burn down our village, so we had to escape and flee into the jungle because of that.

It happened like that many times that when we fled… Na On is located in Karenni state, which is really close to the border between Thailand and Burma. So when that Burmese soldier came to our village we escaped and then moved to the border, we lived there for a while, just four or five months and then when the Burmese [battle line moved] back we also went back to our village. So the location always used to change. The trees would grow and it became like a jungle again and then we had to clean up again before living there for probably one or two years before having to escape again.

Finally in around 1985 we moved to the Thai side of the line, we crossed the border and moved to another village for a longer time than the other places we had lived. Na On was located on the Thai side at that time, and there we set up a great culture and we thought that this was our village, but it wasn’t because of the Thai authorities. They came to the village and tried to force us to [leave] the village again. So we had to flee back to the Burmese side, to Karenni state and then we lived around that area there, in a small village. Then the Burmese military also forced us to leave! So finally we didn’t have a choice, and had to [get together] with the other Karenni people who were also refugees and then had to cross the border again.

Our Karenni leaders had to negotiate with the Thai authorities, which ended up with us moving into [a refugee] camp in around 1995, so our lives changed a lot.

When I was young I really wanted to regularly attend school, but I never got the chance. For us that’s normal, we never knew about our future. Actually we really would have liked to study but we didn’t have the chance.

So when we were living in the camp we were assisted or supported by the many NGOs, until then I had been living in a big family. So at that time my father was a tribal member there and he had to cross the Thai checkpoint at many points on the border. Unfortunately one day he was arrested by the Thai police because that time his partner crossed the checkpoint with a weapon, a gun.

A gun and a bomb, actually his friend hid it under the car but my father didn’t know about that, and when he went across the checkpoint the police found it. So everyone in the car was sent to jail.

They stayed in prison for many months, six months in the end. But my father doesn’t speak the Thai language, so he couldn’t explain that the weapons were not his. But he was arrested anyway and he felt like this was as a result of the civil war and of the political problems in our homeland. He knows that the language barrier is a big obstacle to living in another country. So he decided that I, as his son, had to study in a Thai school so that in the future I wouldn’t have a problem like he did, so I studied for two years: primary school and nursery I think. And then when we lived in the camp he decided that I had to study in Thai. I studied and finished up to high school, at Thai high school.

But my story of being at Thai school is sometimes a bit sad and sometimes a bit happy because I, as a Karenni, I do have my own identity, I do have a different language and also my own story, my background is different from the local people in here in Thailand. When I first started at Thai school I didn’t know any Thai, only my local language. And not only local people but some teachers just used to discriminate against us because we were a different ethnicity and we are a minority as well, so they tried to marginalize us from the local people. So, at that time we did have some friends who were Karenni and we used to speak in our own language, but the teachers didn’t like that! They said, “You can’t speak your language in this school, you have to speak in Thai and you have to follow us.”

We are Christian, most of my friends and I are Roman Catholic. But at that time the teacher and also the local Thai people tried to force us to believe in Buddhism. They said you should practice as Buddhists, and at school we couldn’t pray, before dinner we wanted to pray, thanks to god or something like that, but they said you shouldn’t do that, that you should speak in Thai and you should practice the Buddhist religion.

So yeah of course we had to follow them and we had to try our best to show them that we are not just an ethnic group that can be marginalized. We do have capacity, we do have knowledge, we do have everything that you have so we tried to show our identity as well. On Fridays we had to wear traditional clothes, so we asked the teacher if we could wear traditional clothes too. And there are some teachers that understood, or tried to understand that we wanted to organize, and recognize ourselves as valuable people, not just a marginalized group.

So we at the time as Karenni students tried to participate in every activity in school, for example sports, in Thai school they really try to support sports. So, if you participated, even if you failed your exams but participated in sport they would give you the grades you needed, so it’s really funny. And we knew that, so we all tried to participate in sport and compete with other schools.

It wasn’t just sport but also academic things like drawing, anything, so after we had studied up to grade five we had done a lot of great things that made the school proud of themselves. We tried our best to show that this school has many champions in not just sports but also academic pursuits. So finally the teachers who used to see us as a marginalized and poor ethnic group finally started recognizing us as something more. So we all [became] like peers in their society.

In this village we are mostly Karenni people and Thai people, so finally we can promote our identity. Even though when we talk about identity is just like imagining, it’s just like imagining identity. My parents always recall their village and their homeland in Burma but [I didn’t get to see] it until I was twenty-five.

I was born on the border and my parents always [remind] me that they do have a lot of relatives who are still living in Burma and they talk about their parents, my grandmother, grandfather, my grandparents, but I’ve never seen them, I just saw them in the pictures. I really wanted to go back to my homeland and this was my dream but I never had the chance until I was twenty-five two years ago. So this was my first time to go back to my parents’ homeland, so it’s just like a dream happened along the journey, I went back and also saw my old village that I used to live in.

I still ask, is it true or am I just dreaming!? I went back to Burma and then visit my relatives there. I feel like… I’m so excited, because I’ve never seen them in my whole life and that is the first time for me to see them and they, they don’t even recognize me as Karenni people.

They said, “You don’t look like Karenni people here.” My accent is a little bit different from the original Karenni there.

But when you ask me if I can go back and live there… I don’t think I can live there because our culture, since I am living here for more than twenty years, my background and culture or language is mixed with other people, other culture, so I cannot just go back and live in my homeland anymore. It has just become like an imagined community, an imagined homeland. I can say that, because I always think back to my parent’s native land, but when I go back I cannot live there for the whole life. I can just think of them, my relatives; I can also help them in some way, but I don’t think I can go back and live there. I can’t… My life with this, this kind of experience…

If I had] chance to go, to go and study abroad – I would be happy with that, because I just want to learn more and, and to get knowledge and to learn more about the outside the world, but I don’t want to go back and live like our grandparents anymore. But in my feeling I still… I always recognize myself as a Karenni, even though I grew up in this Thai society.

I do have a lot of Thai friends, but they themselves don’t recognize me as a Thai person. My way of life is totally different from theirs. I can communicate, I can play, talk with them, but I can’t… how to say? Be myself with them is really hard.


What is different? What in your life is different than Thai people’s life?

In terms of the cultural and social [behaviour]… [The Thai people’s food is] different from our food. They do eat everything as well but the way they cook it is different, so this is just an example that is different. And also the language, the language is totally different. Even though my parents live in this village, they do understand some Thai, but they don’t… they cannot speak.

I live with my family. I can speak with [people in] my neighbourhood, Thai people, but when the Thai people come to our family and then they speak in Thai, my parents think it is really hard to communicate with them, so they would ask me to communicate with them. So this kind of thing makes me… I think it helped me to integrate with these people.


So you said.. Burma is not really your homeland? And Thailand is not…?

Yeah, I would say that. It’s just imagined – an imagined homeland. I can say that.


Do you, do you feel like you have a home?

No because eventhough I know that I was born in a village [in Burma], I cannot say that it’s my homeland because, I just lived there for one year. I had to escape and then move many times. When I think about the culture and social life… when I go back to Burma it’s really hard to communicate or to be with the people living in the city, you know, they just talk in Burmese and then, the way they live and the way they act is totally different from mine. Eventhough my parents used to live there – I don’t think I can… it’s really hard to live there.


Is there something like a homeland for you?

Actually I recognize myself [as belonging to] Burma, Karenni State, and I can say that my homeland is in Burma and Kayah State, Karenni State. But when you ask me more like, “How does your homeland look like?” I can just explain you by imaging, you know, “Oh my homeland is like… mountainous and they have rivers, streams… I can imagine that, but in the reality it might not be similar to what I imagine, so I just say that it is just an imagined homeland that I can explain to you, but I cannot […] draw a picture. When you ask me to draw [my] homeland I will just draw like, “Okay, there is a mountain, there is a tree…” But when you ask me about the culture I won’t know that.


How was it possible for you to study in Thai school? I heard it is difficult for refugees to get into Thais schools. To leave the refugee camp is not allowed.

My father is a political leader. So [my parents weren’t registered in the] refugee camp. My mother does have a UNHCR card, she is registered, but for my dad, he is not. So he is allowed to live outside a camp. Because of his work he [lives] outside [of] the camp in a small village.

It’s true that [the Thai authorities don’t] allow the refugee to leave in a camp, but in reality erm it, it still happens. You have to, you have to have your own strategy, you know… You cannot just live in camp for more than two decades. My father took me to take me outside. At that time the Thai authorities didn’t have such strict rules. So many foreigners [came into camp to teach] and education in camp was really good, many qualified people.

So at the time I took that opportunity: Since outside people can go inside our camp, so well, so living in camp I can got outside! I studied in a village and then, in the evening I went back. [We were three friends that walked through the fields every day] to study. In the raining season we couldn’t go to school because [everything was flooded]. [So we had many] “Sundays.”

We were marginalized in school. But when I was in grade five, as I [had] done some activities in our school, and I also had good marks, the principal felt pity for me so he tried to get the Thai citizenship for me. I can say, I was lucky at the time. You know, when people have power they can do everything. They can just talk, and… sometimes even under the table. So finally he helped me and I became a Thai citizen, so that I could continue my studies until grade nine.

Resettlement became very popular at that time. One of my brothers who studied in camp decided to apply for the resettlement programme to Australia and he ask me to follow him.

Finally I decided not to go because my parents… The first thing that my father doesn’t have the UNHCR registration [which is necessary for applying to a resettlement programme] and another thing is that my parents language and cultural barrier here. I cancelled my resettlement for them, but my brother went.

I continued my studies and I tried my best at the time and I applied for a university and I got in. [I was about to leave for university, when] my parents said that the cost would be a lot. So finally I had to cancel my admission.


At the time I was ruined inside because many of my friends in the class asked me, “Where are you going to study?”

I didn’t have an answer for them, I didn’t have an answer for them at the time, so… I also cried at the time for my studies, because I had been dreaming about studying for many years and had been about to reach my goal but finally I failed it and then I just went back to camp.

I went back to the camp to study there for two years. I also did self-study, because I thought that I can’t just stop my studies here. Actually my parents said, “You can work, you can study later.” They said that many times, but I didn’t. I didn’t listen to that.

So I decided for myself and I applied for a scholarship and I got it. I moved to Chiang Mai to study there for four years. This year is my final year.


I still recognize myself as Karenni. I think, since – compared to people who live in camp – I got knowledge, I got some skills, am equipped with a lot of new experiences from the outside world… I thought it will be a good challenge for me to share with them, to came back. Any way I can help, I will be happy to do that.

The thing is: Even though it is very hard to say that this is my homeland, at least I have a community here.



I will tell you about an unforgettable memory for me. Before I crossed the border between Thailand and Burma, I used to think it would be safe for me to live here [in Ban Nai Soi on the border]. I used to think it should be my homeland. I was still young then.


How old were you?

I was only about 13 or 14. Something like that. I used to think that at first, living here, but it wasn’t the case. Because once, Burmese soldiers came to our house.


Here in Ban Nai Soi?

Yes, here in Ban Nai Soi. They came to our house and woke me up. They came to our house and tried to kill our family. It was about midnight, and we were all already asleep. They came to the front of our house, but at first they didn’t cross the fence. I thought they might be planning to come into my house and kill my family. At that time I had two sisters. Then many more soldiers, maybe ten or more, came. Fortunately for us at that time, a couple of local guys came to visit us and the soldiers saw them and shot at them. They fell down and one was shot in the stomach. At that time I was really afraid, because this had never happened before in my life. They were just shooting at our house for more than ten minutes. My parents took me under the house and we hid there for over fifteen minutes so we couldn’t be found. And finally the shooting stopped. The guy who had been shot was covered in a lot of blood, so people sent him to the hospital. I was really sad, because until then I always thought this would be a safe place to live. But it is not. Even some local people here discriminate against us, and not just that, but sometimes Burmese soldiers cross the border and come to the village. They are not allowed to do that you know? Because this is Thailand.


Well you’re not allowed to shoot anyone anywhere.

Yeah, that’s right. So after that I stayed with my friend a lot, because I couldn’t sleep in my house anymore. I just felt unsafe to be in there. So that is my unforgettable memory.


Yes, I can imagine that would be unforgettable!

Yeah, this happened a lot at that time. Many leaders were living around this area and they were shot by the rebel soldiers. Even in this village. But the situation has changed a lot recently, compared to how it was in the past.


Yes, so you work here now. Its been three years since the ceasefire right?

Yes, in about 2010, 2012? Around then. Its changed a lot since the ceasefire. But maybe its just changed on the surface. You know, in Burma, it seems like it has changed for just one part of the country. In terms of economic change, it seems to be better for the rich people, for the elite. But for the civilians, for the poor people it is still the same. Nothing changed for them.

Its really sad. Its sad that it’s the civilians who have suffered the longest.


How do you see the future?

The future depends on my parents, because my mother wants to live with my brother. Actually I have I have two brothers and two sisters and one of my brothers lives in Australia and another brother lives in Finland. One sister lives in Finland as well, so resettlement made our family break apart and leave each other. So now, it’s just my oldest sister, Meema, and I that live with our parents. But my sister also has a family, so she has to take care of her family. Only I am single and then I have to take duty, to take care of my parents. So in the future I think, if nothing changes, I will just try to live in my community here and to work with them, because we need a lot of human resources to develop our community.

The refugee [camp is scheduled to be closed] in five years. So… I am not really sure. I can’t say what I’m going to do, or where I’m going to live. It’s difficult. Maybe the refugee will be forced to go back to our home country. And maybe then I will be able to recognize myself as a Karenni, a full Karenni or something…


If you, if you could tell the world anything, what would you say?

Anything… I think, I just want to tell that… I want to raise my voice as an indigenous person. I want to raise my voice as a Karenni person who lives in another country, but who still keeps holding on to his identity.

So I just want to tell to the country that try to… I believe that there are a lot of indigenous or ethnic groups like me who are still marginalized and living in another society, facing a lot of difficulties in terms of culture, social life, security…

[I want to encourage them] to get involved and to participate in the decision-making, in political issues, because even though we are allowed to live in this community, in this village, we are not allowed to decide anything, to participate and to possibly even be the head of the village. To be head of the village you have to be Thai, your parents have to be, your grandparents have to be Thai citizens. So it’s really difficult to participate or to empower yourself in their society.

I just want to say that the international community should listen, should pay more attention to the indigenous or marginalized groups, those that don’t have a voice, the poor people, the poor who are trying to raise their voice. They should not leave these people behind. They should listen to these people.


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Lena is German-born. She enjoys studying languages and traveling.
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