The day Aung San Suu Kyi was released a frantic buzz filled the Burmese corner of town. I was in one of the dry goods store, waiting for Zar, browsing through a week old Burmese newspaper I couldn’t read. The owner, Zar’s friend told me I have to go; Zar was coming but I had to go. The police were coming so they needed to close the shop.
I met up with Zar at a coffee shop on the other side. He asked me if I wanted anything to drink and I asked him what’s going on. He told me, it’s ok, don’t worry, the police just coming, it happens all the time.
“Once a month, sometimes very close, one a week like that. Depends,” Zar explains in his broken English.
Known for tough crackdowns on illegal migrants, the Malaysian migration regime has become almost synonymous to regular raids.
“You see here, many people come. Most of the foreigners come to shopping around here. So who is an illegal, legal can’t be divided each other. So find out the illegal people here, that’s why the police always check around. But not to worry, I’m a legal one, got the passport and paper also from the government, only I cannot hold the passport,” he went on, showing me a photocopy of his passport, which was held by his employer.
It is said that there are an estimated 50,000 Burmese in Malaysia, although it is difficult to pinpoint exact numbers in light of their situation, the multiple and complex factors underpinning this cross-border movement of refugees fleeing from political turmoil, migrants in search of jobs, documented and undocumented entrants. In Malaysian detention centers, it has been noted that the Burmese make up majority of those detained ‘illegals’ staying in the country. Zar is among the few legal ones with an actual permit, for which he says, his employer had to shell out RM 3000.
“That’s why they keep the passport,” he tells me.
Zar has been in the country for almost 10 years. Working as a cook at a small hotel in town, he earns about RM 800 a month, half of which he sends back to his mother in Burma.
“My mother and Aung San Suu Kyi, I think the same age. She is 65.” Zar tells me about her, as we waited for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release to be announced online.
“She worked for the government before, you know, now she retired. In 1988, she joined demonstration of government people and she was sent to prison. I was 10 years old and left by myself. The government came and told me that my mother was in meeting somewhere. But my mother came back after three months and she told me what really happened. When they release her, they gave her a paper saying she retired but they did not give her any money. My mother she’s very old, now she lives with my auntie.”
He talked about all this in one stream, as if talking about one’s parents, what they do, protests, prison, one after the other, were the most normal thing in the world. And as if imprisonment and retirement were everyday conversation topics; and the injustice of unlawful detention and withheld pensions is part of one fluid continuum of a world that has hardly been fair. ‘So she is very, very, old now cannot work anymore.’
Zar is an only child. And so now it’s his turn to work. He was a Physics student at a local university in Burma when he decided to go to Malaysia. Working part time in a hotel, he met his former boss, a Malaysian, who offered him a job overseas. He thought to himself, I stay here and study but there is no job, no rights. And so the boy, who started having to fend for himself at the age of 10, left his country for the first time.
Zar fiddled with his laptop, checking mizzima, irrawady, as he told me all this. ‘This is my friend; every day I work almost 12 hours then on my free time I watch the news from my country from all over the world, here.”
By 3:30, no announcement had been made yet. Zar told me he had to go, get back to work. He only gets a two-hour break from 2-4 pm every day, working from 9 in the morning ‘til 11 at night. We decided to just catch up again next week. Zar paid for our coffee. We parted ways, without our anticipated good news about Aung San Suu Kyi.
Around late afternoon, when I found out, I sent messages to some Burmese workers I’m in contact with. Zar sent me back a text message: ‘Thank you. I very happy but have to work now.’
The next day, I visited the same corner again, entering another Burmese kedai unannounced. I ordered a 100plus from the owner at the counter. “Did you watch Aung San Suu Kyi last night?” I just threw it out there, showing him the stylized, sort of pop art sticker and the other Free Burma paraphernalia I had, my props to back up my poor language skills.
He paused, actually looked at me, said yes and smiled. “Bolleh Beritanya? Chakap,” I asked. It was my version of can I talk to you about it; ask questions in my elementary, broken Bahasa Malayu?
He pointed to a table, and made a hand gesture, which seemed to mean sure, hold on a minute, sit down. I did as I was told. This was a complete shift from the last time I talked to him, when he hardly acknowledged my presence. I started coming to this particular shop a couple of days before the elections, talking to customers, asking them what they thought. People sort of humored me, let me sit at their tables to talk, although clearly stressing that they couldn’t care less about the polls. “It’s a lie, imitation,” I was told in many different ways, when I pressed to inquire about the resumption of elections in Burma after 20 years.
Kyaw was one of those who just brushed this event aside. Now, I’m back at his shop, and he’s about to sit down next to me. He showed off his Aung San Suu Kyi posters and memorabilia. He rolled out one medium sized poster, stopped for a bit to gaze at a younger Suu Kyi, and then sort of grazed his fingers, almost but not quite touching her image.
Watching him, I was reminded of several articles I’ve read recently, where some analysts talked about the romanticized regard, the almost blind adulation for Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I’m sorry,” he tells me. “I always crying when I talk about her. I don’t know.” He turned away, and I tried not to look at him when I realized that his eyes were filling up with tears.
“Last night, I’m watching and my wife ask me, ‘why are you crying?’ I cannot stop. But I tell her it’s not a sad cry; it’s happy cry.”
Kyaw is 46 years old. He came to Malaysia in 1996, driven out by political turmoil in the country. Today, he manages a small canteen catering primarily to Burmese customers, a shop he co-owns with his Indonesian wife. He told me about his father who was imprisoned after 1990. He told me about his daughter, who was born in Malaysia, who cannot speak or read Burmese, who only has a vague notion of the country, much less its struggles.
‘I think because she make me think what is happening. What is do to her, what is do to us. And I think about her. It is her heart.’
We had the conversation with Metallica playing in the background. He seemed to like Metallica, among other bands, at least judging from his wide collection of framed musician posters—
Pantera, Scorpions, the Beatles, Bob Marley along with Bruce Lee and Aung San Suu Kyi, an interesting parade of icons, which hung on the lively blue wall of his shop.
“So what do you think about her release?” I prodded on.
“I think temporary. No change.”
I was surprised by his response. I was expecting something else I suppose, after seeing his earlier display of unmistakable reverence, the kind of worship that I often saw from Catholic devotees who prayed earnestly, touching the face, the feet of the Virgin Mary. I thought I would hear something more optimistic, a little bit more upbeat, especially, after listening to people last week firmly, repeatedly declared that they didn’t believe in the elections, “only Aung San Suu Kyi can change things.” But I heard the same answers from everyone else.
Practically the same thing too, from Mr. Soe, who told me over lunch a couple of days ago, “I think it’s fake. Just for two months, three months. I’m waiting. I know already. They have plan.”
Mr. Soe works as a cook for a Thai restaurant in Jelutong. He is 52 years old, married and with two children. He’s been working in Malaysia for 14 years, sending his earnings back home to his family left behind.
“You have to think one step ahead. The junta is clever.”
“So what do you think their plan is?”
Mr. Soe then brought up the recent elections, the landslide win, the ensuing unrest. He then tells me, “so now people are happy, this is making people happy. And then later they will announce something I know. I wait. Maybe they will change the pictures. They retire and no longer wearing the uniform. Then they will announce something. I’m already old, I already see many things. My generation experienced nothing, nothing but hardship.”
As they spoke of their elation about Aung San Suu Kyi, there was this jagged wariness that could be readily detected, from Mr. Soe, from Ali, from Zar, a strange marriage of hope and despair, probably instilled by time and again learning the hard way that appearances could not be trusted.
Before he came to Malaysia, Mr. Soe was a photographer for a newspaper. He would walk miles and miles to get good pictures. “There is a road and I take picture of some broken. I go back to the newspaper and they say stop the printing we cannot put this picture. They don’t want anything show like that.”
He told me he gave up being a photographer at some point, frustrated by circumstances, pushed out by the meager pay. He and other migrant workers here compared wages between their country and Malaysia. In Burma, they told me, people would earn about 3-5 ringgit a day, while here they earn around RM 20-30, with overtime and at times some part time work.
“In my country everyone is very poor. Very quiet. Only working. Working for money, working to eat,” Mr Soe said.
There seemed to be a consensus in terms of their assessment of peoples’ dispositions, whether in Burma or overseas. “Junta already make like this everybody, no political, only working money to eat.”
Kyaw shares, “I come here to Malaysia and I see everything, I see tall buildings, everything and I thinking why not the same. You see everything not the same. Not only the building, but everything not the same. In my country, nobody can say about political, if they say, then they will be arrested.”
Zar seems to share similar sentiments, although he has other observations. He knew about being arrested for political reasons, locked up (and ‘hit with a very hard stick, because they say only first time’) as a student for putting up some protest posters in campus. They released him after a couple of days, and told him that if they caught him again next time, the punishment would be tougher.
In Malaysia, where Zar works at least 12 hours a day, at times with no day off in a month, Zar told me, sometimes he gets ‘very bother.’
“In my country no human rights, now I come to Malaysia, it’s like same. It’s like we are prisoner. Like we are servant from the old times in another country,” he noted.
In different conversations, I asked all of them if they wanted to go back to Burma.
Mr. Soe replied, “I have to stay in Malaysia to work, for my children.”
“I want to but not yet. I think change come but a long time. Now I working, watching, waiting. I believe, really this, but many, many years more,” Kyaw told me.
“Sometimes my friends get very depression about our life here but cannot go home. They feel so bad, they’re drinking a lot. I tell them, don’t do this. We stay in another country to learn, to get experience. So when we go back, we can do more. And if our country progress, we don’t have to go overseas to work,” Zar said. #FoP
*Aya Fabros is an Associate, currently on study leave, of the Focus on the Global South-Philippines. She is now in Malaysia, doing research for her fellowship as an Asian Public Intellectual (API).