n November 2010, on a trip with Christian Aid to Nai Soi refugee camp, one of nine Burmese refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border, I met a young man with an incredible story that I feel compelled to tell.
Saw Tin, who is from the Shan ethnic group, was 14 years old when he travelled from Shan state by train to visit his friend in Loikaw, the capital of Karenni state, eastern Burma. Karenni forces have been fighting against the Burmese military for their right to self-determination for more than 60 years. The Karenni and Shan people are two of more than a hundred ethnic groups in Burma that are denied the right to make decisions about how they are governed and the way they live.
Saw Tin's train ride took him on a journey that is not over yet; and eight years later, I met him in Nai Soi camp, three miles from the Burmese border in northern Thailand. As I asked him about his story – why he was here – he spoke earnestly and honestly.
Saw Tin had left his home and family on 29 December 2002. On the train he sat next to a Burmese army officer whose soldiers tried to persuade him to join the Burmese military. When he refused, Saw Tin was coerced into becoming a unpaid porter for them. Though the officer was a "good man", he says the soldiers treated him "like a criminal" and he wasn't allowed to speak to the other young soldiers and porters around him. A few days later, after finding out that Saw Tin was the same age as his own son, the officer allowed him to escape. Too scared to return to the train station and without the money to return home by other means, Saw Tin took a job in Khonengoo village in Western Shan state rebuilding a road. The labour, he says, was extremely difficult, and being too young and weak to pound the stones, he instead became responsible for carrying sand down from the mountain. The owner took pity on him, and adopted him as his own son.
His adopted father's eldest son had already left Burma for one of the refugee camps and one day the police arrived to arrest Saw Tin's adopted father for what was seen by the authorities as his son's treachery. So Saw Tin escaped into the jungle again, this time with his adopted father, where they lived for several months, with a long sword in hand for protection and the hope that villagers they met along the way would guide rather than fight them. Saw Tin's adopted mother, her two other children and two friends later joined them, abandoning their house, land, farm and possessions after the police began to threaten her.
The family were pointed by two villagers in the direction of Karenni soldiers who "warmly" welcomed them and offered to lead them towards their base in exchange for information on the Burmese soldiers. As the group travelled towards the border with Thailand, they met other IDPs (internally displaced persons) and their group expanded to 44. The journey across the border took seven days and, according to Saw Tin, was "very difficult and dangerous". On the sixth day they had to pass a Burmese military camp and cross the road that the Burmese soldiers used to receive supplies. On the seventh day, 12 May 2004, the group made it to Refugee Camp One in Thailand safely. Despite not speaking English or the Karenni language – the main language in the camp – Saw Tin did a four-month medical course in the camp and worked in the camp's clinic. On 25 May 2006 he decided to return to eastern Burma to try and help the many villagers he had met who were dying of seemingly curable diseases. After living in the jungle for a year, he travelled back, visiting over 50 villages and helping thousands of people.
He said: "I felt very unhappy about what I saw: I believe that everyone should have a chance. It is dependent on the government – they must help everyone who live in rural areas. Many people were dying with health problems such as diarrhoea, skin diseases, malaria, worms, especially in children, and malnutrition. The government has never vaccinated the children in those areas. So many people suffered from diseases and some died every day."
Standing under the dappled shade of the camp's thatched roof library, Saw Tin told me the story of his first experience in one of the villages. For the first time there was a catch in his voice as he recounted how tragic it was to find wood outside the home of a sick boy. It had been cut down in preparation for his coffin. Saw Tin helped keep the boy alive for another two days before he passed away. Nearly a year later on 13 March 2007, he returned to the refugee camp where he has lived since. He now tends a pumpkin patch on the other side of the stream in the school, where he studies English, amongst other subjects. His adopted family emigrated to America in 2008 but he cannot follow them as he lost his official UN refugee number when he disappeared from the camp for a year to work as a medical volunteer .
Asylum seekers usually only get one interview for official refugee status, so until the political situation changes, Saw Tin's future will remain uncertain. He has not seen or been able to communicate with his real family since he left on that train journey in 2002 and does not know whether they are dead or alive. Saw Tin's English is remarkably good, and he asks me if I can send history, social and "adventure" travel books to the camp. He takes down my email address and optimistically says he will email me if they ever get internet in the camp – "hopefully in a year", he muses. Like most people I met in the camps, he is extremely compassionate, subtly political and motivated to help. "I must continue my education; it is the only way for my dreams to come true. I want to be an educated person and a rich man because I want to help people who suffer health problems and starvation inside Burma and the whole world."
On the plane home I picked up Time magazine. The cover story, timed in cautious anticipation of the November 2010 elections, asked: Can the young bring change to Burma? The article documents the web of political activism – often delivered under the tenuous veil of safety art and music – and suggests that it is being spearheaded by students inside the country. As with Saw Tin, I was so inspired and humbled by the concern, fearless inventiveness and passion that this young community caught in the darkness of political turmoil demonstrates. It's a spirit we ought to recognise as the world faces a new year.
This article was published by the Guardian in 2010.