Living to Help His Shan People

In War in Burma on April 3, 2008 at 3:01 pm


By Antonio Graceffo


“Inside Shan State we cannot teach Shan language. And, when youth talk about politics there is retaliation. Even talking about the meaning of democracy, even thinking about the meaning of democracy is dangerous.” Said twenty year old Kawn Wan.


After his family was murdered and his village Burned, Kawn Wan completed his education and became a teacher and caretaker of orphans in Shanland, Loi Tailang, Shan State Army (SSA) Headquarters.


“You foreigners, when you aren’t happy with something, you go and change it. You protest and fight. But here in Burma, it is impossible for us.” He explained.


Kawn Wan sits in the bamboo hut he shares with several other teachers. The orphan dormitory is just across the way, and the boys are busy hiking a mile, down the mountain to bath in the river and wash their school uniforms for the next day. The uniforms are comprised of Shan trousers and pressed white shirt.


“It takes an hour to get the shirt clean.” Said a boy, toiling to bang out the wrinkles with a rock. Life in Loi Tailang is predicated on schedules. Kawn Wan and a few other grown-up orphans are the official caretakers of the young kids, but the children know their daily chores and for the most part, they do them. This includes the two mile river hike, daily, as the thrice daily hike all the way back to the school, on the other side of the camp, where they get their meals.


Some boys who have finished with their laundry are playing takraw, a game similar to volleyball, where the feet, rather than hands, are used to get the rattan ball over the net. The orphan area is surrounded by defense trenches and air raid tunnels, where the boys know to take refuge in the event of an attack. Further down the hill is a line of punji, sharpened stakes, designed to keep out the enemy. The steaks serve as a warning, to keep innocent people from walking into the landmines.


Seeing the boys laugh as they struggle to kick the ball over the net, you would think this was a normal school, at recess, anywhere. But it isn’t anywhere. The school, the dormitory, the base, and Shanland itself are inside of Burma. And, if it wasn’t for the thousands of Shan State Army soldiers protecting them, the orphans, as well as all the other refugees, would be killed by the forces of the SPDC, the junta that rules Burma.


“In Shanland, even the little children when you ask, what is your dream, they say, I want to go home.” Said Kawn Wan.


Most of the children came to Shanland because the SPDC burned their villages or killed their parents. They seem happy to be living in a place where they have so many brothers to play with, but like people everywhere, their instinct is to want to go home. Unfortunately, there is no home to go back to. And, until the war is over, or until Shanland wins its independence, a trip to Loi Tailang is one way. It would be too dangerous for the children to consider going back.


Kawn Wan came to Loi Tailing in 2001, and has now spent nearly half his life living as an orphan and Internally Displaced Person (IDP).


When the SPDC killed his mother and forced Kawn Wan to leave his village, in 1996, he was so young he couldn’t carry his own gear.


“The SPDC soldiers came to our village and told us we had to move into the town.”


The Burmese government forces frequently forcibly relocate villagers in order to better control them. Those who resist relocation are often murdered, and their homes are burned. In Kawn Wan’s case, his village was forced to move into a city.


“In the city it is hard for us to survive because we are countryside people. We don’t know how to get food in a city. Some people escaped from the town. From when I left until now, I didn’t hear anything about my family. They left the town to look for food. Then people told me the SPDC caught them.”


Eventually, Kawn Wan made it to Loi Tailang. He finished school and Shan college. Now, in addition to taking care of the other children, he works as a teacher of English and Shan Kung Fu. Kawn Wan teaches the nearly lost Shan martial art to the children in the hopes of preserving their culture.


“If we do not win,” said a Shan military officer, “Some day, if you want to know about Shan culture, you will need to go to a museum.”


Some of the boys living in the orphanage are not orphans in the strictest sense of the word. One or the other of their parents was still alive when they came to live in Loi Tailang. Inside Shan State, the SPDC has made life very difficult.  Parents cannot take care of their children the way they want to. Shan children don’t have access to education. At Loi Tailang, at least the parents know that their children can attend school and get three basic meals per day.


“They come day by day.” Says kawn Wan. “Some come alone, and some come with a relative. Their Uncle or the headman bring them here, because inside Shan State life is so bad. The government doesn’t allow us to teach Shan language at school.”


The orphans here are not only Shan, but also Lahu, Pa-O and Palong. The student body is composed of all of the ethnic groups who live in Shan State. Colonel Yawd Serk, the military and political leader of Shan State Army stresses the importance of racial tolerance. All of the many ethnic groups in Burma have suffered at the hands of the Burmese Army, but the SPDC has long used disunity as a tool for controlling the ethnics. If they combine their forces, under a single military ruler, the many tribes far outnumber the Burmese in the tribal areas. The Burmese soldiers are conscripts, who suffer oppression at the hands of their superiors. The tribal people, on the other hand, are fighting for their homes and families. United, there is no way they would lose.


“All the ethnics can bring children here to study.” Explained Kawn Wan. The term Shan State Nationalities is often used to describe the many peoples living in Shan State. “Some of them can’t speak Shan when they arrive here. So, they learn it. We also teach them English, Thai, and Burmese.”


“When I lived in Shan State I didn’t know what is democracy, what is human rights, what is other countries do. I didn’t know. I came here and I was sent to Shan college, and I learned. And now I can use my skill to help other people.”


Between leaving his village and coming to Loi Tailang, Kawn Wan lived as a novice monk in Thailand.


“I was a temple boy, cleaning the temple and studying with the monks, but could not go to regular school because I had no Id card.”


Many of the Shan leaders were monks in Thailand at some time in their lives. Up to about age fifteen the Thai police are rather forgiving about asking for ID. But, once the boys reach adulthood, they have to have legal papers to remain in Thailand, or they have to go home. The problem for the Shan, of course, is that they have no home to go back to. Luckily, Kawn Wan found a home at Loi Tailang. 


“When we live here, our heart is warm. These children don’t have parents, so I love to help them and be an older brother for them.”


What is the future for Kawn Wan’s young students?


“When they graduate, they don’t have to be soldiers.”


The Colonel gives the boys freedom to chose their own career.


“They can be teachers. They can be whatever they want. They can go to work in an NGO, or in a government department.”


The government of Shanland is called the Reconciliation Council of the Shan State (RCSS). The governmental departments are in place, and staffed with bright young Shan waiting for the world to recognize them as an independent country.


“If we have only soldiers, we cannot build our country. So, we need to educate our people, to have skills, to help develop our country. Even me, I lived with soldiers for a long time, but I didn’t want to be a soldier. I want to be a teacher. I don’t want to have a high position. I just want to stay with the orphans and take care of them. This is my dream.”


“It is important to teach the children what are human rights so they know the good way for them.”


The Shan all respect Aung San Suu Kyi, but they are realists.


“I think the NLD (National League for Democracy) cannot do anything for us inside of Shan State. We have never seen them. They haven’t visited us.


“I like other countries, they have democracy. I like Thailand. I only don’t like that I don’t have the ID card, but our food and everything comes from Thailand. I like the Thai King.” All Shan people respect His majesty, King Rama IX of Thailand. On the day of his 80th birthday, no one worked in Shanland. The villagers put on their best clothes and met at the temple to pray for the King’s health.


“We teach the children to respect Him.”


On the wall in his bamboo hut, just above his Buddhist shrine, Kawn Wan, like so many other Shan, has a trinity of kings. These include, the last Shan King, King Rama V of Thailand, and King Rama IX.  


“Even if we don’t know the future, our leader is trying his best to find our victory. Some of us work in different ways, but we have the same goal. Some work like soldiers. Some have skills and can help a lot of people. Even if we cannot go live inside Shan State we can have our school, and we can teach the children freely. Inside Shan State we cannot teach Shan language. And, when youth talk about politics there is retaliation. Even talking about the meaning of democracy, even thinking about the meaning of democracy is dangerous.”


Kawn Wan is fully committed to the path he has chosen.


“I don’t think about getting married. I think about my students. I sacrifice my life to help them.”


I asked Kawn Wan what message he would like to send to the American people.


“I want the American people to know that we have a country, but we cannot live in it. We have no human rights. The Burmese government doesn’t do anything for us. We want the Americans to help us, to tell the SPDC to give us democracy.  We want the power in the hands for our people. We want to live freely, like other countries. I think because in America they have freedom, and in democracy country, they have rights, and they will use their rights to help us. Please share our information with other people.”

    Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.


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