Thursday, July 16, 2009

New life brings new freedom

Myanmar man flees oppression for American experience

By Craig S. Semon TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

‘Impeach Bush.”Ni Cung Lian was amazed when he saw the aforementioned bumper sticker on the back of a car, not because he's pro- or anti-George Bush, nor does he think it's time to chip away at an adhesive, Bush-bashing slogan to put a more contemporary one in its place.

It is because if people were parading around with the equivalent sentiment on their cars (that is, if they even had cars) where Mr. Lian is from, they could easily find themselves in prison for the rest of their lives. Mr. Lian, who goes by the nickname “Alian,” was born and raised in Chin State, in western Union of Myanmar (formerly Burma). A mountainous region with few transportation links, Chin State is sparsely populated and remains one of the least developed areas of the country. Mr. Lian, who never touched a computer in Myanmar, has been living with Rocco Marino and Sheila Botti of Sturbridge since September. The 19-year-old, who likes American action movies and will be a senior at St. John's High School in Shrewsbury in the fall, said “everything is totally different” in the United States compared to his native land. “You would not talk about the abuse of human rights in Burma and the bad things about the government,” Mr. Lian said. “If you talk about that, and they know, they can arrest you.” The military has dominated government in Myanmar since Gen. Ne Win led a coup in 1962 that toppled the civilian government of U Nu. Myanmar remains under the tight control of the military-led State Peace and Development Council. Human rights in Myanmar have been a long-standing concern for the international community and human rights organizations. There is general consensus that the military regime in Burma is one of the world's most repressive and abusive regimes. “It is military government. It is not good like here (in the United States),” Mr. Lian said. “In our country, the military government forces people to do hard labor and forces people to carry their stuff.” From the age of 10, Mr. Lian was regularly sentenced to do hard labor twice a week. The military would instruct teachers to force students (including Mr. Lian) to complete hard labor — including a trek of several miles to plant trees and clear brush in the middle of the forest — as part of their regular school schedule. “If you didn't do it, they would ask for money,” Mr. Lian said. “If you don't do it in school, they are going to beat you.” While Mr. Lian escaped the savage beatings, he did see some of his fellow students get physically abused at the hands of teachers. In addition, Mr. Lian, whose father died when he was 3, had to represent his family for hard labor and was forced to carry a heavy load of military gear for miles, from one mountainous location to another. “I am lucky,” Mr. Lian said. “One time I had to carry seven miles (one way) and the other nine miles,” while others in his village had to carry a load 20 miles. The military government would regularly force villagers, including Mr. Lian, to do night patrol for signs of the Chin Nation Army, revolutionaries who oppose the State Peace and Development Council, Mr. Lian said. Because they are Chin people in opposition of the oppressive Burma government, Mr. Lian and his fellow villagers would never turn them in if they spotted them. “We like the CNA. We know that they are Chin people,” Mr. Lian said. “We will not inform them (the government) but we have to do it because they force us to do patrol.” In Myanmar, Mr. Lian, his younger sister and mother lived in a house that they did not own. The house's owner has a daughter who lives in Yangon, the largest city and a former capital of Myanmar. Mr. Lian went to Yangon to see the owner's daughter, who helped him get safe passage out of the country on a boat to Malaysia. From there, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped Mr. Lian eventually get to the United States. “In our village, the Chins always love each other, and we would always help each other if someone had difficulty,” Mr. Lian said. Mr. Lian arrived in the United States in April 2008. Before settling with the Marino family in Sturbridge, he lived in Webster. Although he finds people in the United States to be “nice and polite,” Mr. Lian admits that he was nervous about how they were going to treat him. “At first, I was afraid (coming to the U.S.),” Mr. Lian confessed. “I thought that they might not like me and they would avoid me so I would feel lonely, but that's not the case.” Once a month, Mr. Lian calls Myanmar and talks to his mother and sister, who share one of three phones, one running faucet and one television with 30 other families in their village. When asked if he had any plans to bring his family to the United States, Mr. Lian looked puzzled and with a laugh asked, “How are you going to bring them here?” Mr. Lian hopes to return to Myanmar some day but acknowledges that he's afraid the government might put him in prison. While he believes democracy is the way to go for his people, Mr. Lian confesses that he doesn't expect the Myanmar government to change anytime soon, nor does he believe the United States is doing enough to help the Myanmar people. “If the government changes, I would go back to Burma,” Mr. Lian said.