E – “are you religious?”

Me – “no.  But I think I have something spiritual going on…”

E – “then you are free.”

A natural silence hung in the air, and I looked across the table at him.  It had been eight years since we last saw each other.  Politically, so much had changed.  Suu Kyi had been released, the monks had marched, the NLD had just won the first democratic bi-elections; we could talk, for the first time, about what it might be like for him to go home.

Can’t imagine going back soon…still a long time.

He told me about the peace talks happening between the KNU and Burmese government.  There had been a ceasefire since April or June the year before, but still they didn’t have much freedom, just a little bit of space to move and attend the peace talks.  E accompanies the KNU as a journalist.  Reports his findings and distributes to Karen nationals inside and outside the Karen State.

Me – Is there still fighting going on?

E- The fighting has stopped, but the violence is still happening in the sense that they still fear the military and land mines.  The government is still a majority military and there are no guarantees.

What’s been happening in Burma over these past 60 years, the rape, the violence, the killings, is like some sort of dark secret the world doesn’t really want to face.  You could live in Thailand all your life, the length of which shares its border with Burma, and not know what’s happening, and perhaps most distressing of all…not care.

I was in Koh Phangang when the results of the election came in.  The guys who worked in the place I was staying in were Burmese, and it was a real wake-up call.  Lolling about on the floor cushions, sipping at a Mocca shake, and listening to the stories of all the travelers and their various reasons for escaping the world.  None of them were as formidable as what the guys taking our orders and cleaning the tables must have come from, and yet they never said a word.   A copy of the Bangkok post was sprawled open on the table by the bar, and I could hear the muffled sounds of a radio out back.  They had smiles on their faces, and a skip in their step, but carried on working as if it was just another day.

I gathered the Bangkok post and settled in the far corner.  I’d woken up early, so I could read about it before my yoga session with Matthew and the group.   When I read that Suu Kyi had won, I felt so uplifted and hopeful.  Eight years ago I had written an article about the NLD Convention, and how the military government’s “road map to democracy” was a farce.  Ethnic minorities refused to attend, for fear of being imprisoned or killed, the NLD boycotted due to the undemocratic conditions, and a road-map that ultimately ensured on-going control of the SPDC.  Colleagues of mine back then were often challenged about why they persisted in working for such a lost cause.  No-one could have ever admitted it, but at times it did seem hopeless.

I opened up the newspaper.  There was a whole section dedicated to the election and potential next steps for Suu Kyi, for the NLD, for Burma.  I scanned through page after page, wanting to read about the people.  What would happen to the people?  Would the guys working here be able to go home?  What would that be like?  Returning home, after so many years of exile.  How many families must have been separated, how many loved ones lost…

There wasn’t anything there.  All I could see was speculations over what big Corporates would establish themselves in  Burma once the borders had fully opened, and the impacts all of this would have on the economy of neighbouring countries.  How China and the US, were waiting on tenterhooks.   I tried to imagine what that would be like, on such a momentous day, to read in Foreign papers, what freedom might be like…

Me – What about the world’s response?

E – US – main concern is Chinese influence, not human rights.  Will try to influence Burma.  American companies are coming for business, not the people…

Me – What would be the one question you want answered about all of this?

E – Why the government wants to make peace.  What’s the honest reason?  Main attitude is to secure business.  Suspicious.  Want to see social, ethnic problems, political issues discussed.  People’s lives.  People should be part of the change.  Government, NLD, US, EU – all the main actors, what about the civilians in the process of change?

I could see the frustration and the hurt rising up in him as we talked.  I was going to Burma in a few days time, as a tourist, and I couldn’t help but feel that I had betrayed him somehow.  I wanted to reach across, and assure him that I wouldn’t forget everything I’ve learnt, that always, when I think of Burma, I think of him, and the others I worked with.  Their stories I heard and wrote about, are stories that never go away.

Me: What about going back?

E: Some have gone to other countries.  Going back…no original life…insecure….have to start their lives over.

Me: What about your home?

E: I can’t go back.  My village has already been taken by the government.  Land used to belong to the villagers on the border, and now it will go to the government and the businesses.

He wasn’t sure if when they returned, they would be free to set up their lives and start again, wherever they wanted to, or whether the government would decide.  Once again, I tried to imagine what that would be like.  Returning home after all those years of exile, and being told that you must build your life in….I don’t know – Staines or something like that.  A place you’ve never been before.

Me: What about the recent elections?  Suu Kyi winning, is a massive step in the right direction, do you feel inspired?

E – Its only the beginning.  On the ground – still so many problems, still unhappy and sad.  Not celebration time yet.  In the last ten years, I’ve never been back to my mother’s village.  This year, in March, I went and I was happy to see my relatives.  Happy to see many villagers.  They inspired me.  I see lots of things that inspire me to work harder.

Me: What have the lives of the villagers been like?

E: In hiding this whole time, around the jungles.  No stable place.  Army in search, they have to flee.  They are killed if caught.  Families, men, children, women.

Me: What about living as an EDP?

E: Illegal.  Everytime you go outside you think you will get arrested.  You have to bribe the police, or go to prison.  You get sent back to the border…

Our conversation was interrupted as the waitress cleared away our empty mugs, she glanced at us both, and bowed her head.  I smiled back, “Khab kun ka”, putting a screwed up napkin and spoon onto the plate.  When she was out of ear shot he continued.

E: I’m not happy in Thailand.  “Smiling people” for Westerners, for Burmese, they look down on them, don’t show any smiles.

Me: Is there no support from Thai people for what’s going on in Burma?

E: No real support.  A few Thais are aware, but depends on Thai media.  Read it in a negative way.  Just about immigrants stealing jobs…

We stopped talking right there, about Burma anyway.  He looked tired, older.  I felt that to carry on he would sink deeper, even though he was happy to continue.  We spent the rest of the day walking around the shops looking at cameras and sharing stories.  Updates on everyone else I worked with 8 years ago and how they were getting on.  Married with kids or still single, they were all still working ceaselessly and passionately for their cause.

We had lunch in a run-down cafe just around the corner from their office.  They relocated a few years ago, and it was nothing like I remembered it.  Tucked away, so discreetly, it would be too easy to forget they were even there.  We trekked to Victory Monument, where he was catching a bus back to his home along the border, in silence.  Glancing up at each other occasionally, I smiled at him.   When we said goodbye, I embraced him, and kissed him on the cheek, clung to his hand, not wanting to leave him.

Matthew said that with yoga and meditation and everything else we were doing, we’d become more sensitive,  and as I walked away, I carried some of his pain with me.  My shoulders shook, and I turned my face away from the crowds, as I crossed the overpass towards the BTS station.  I thought of all the things I had seen and experienced.  The struggle I was working through in facing up to all of it, and making peace with my past, and acceptance of my present.  What about my Burmese friends?  How will they ever find their peace?