Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Chin in Malaysia Part 1: The Irrepressible Hope of a Brighter Future

By Michael Zeller

 Kuala Lumpur seems an oddity among Southeast Asian cities. In a region where millennia of history underlie the boom of twenty-first century life, Kuala Lumpur’s – “KL” as most refer to it – foundations date from the nineteenth century as a modest tin mining region. The soaring skyscrapers and development projects seem consistent with its Southeast Asian neighbors, but KL, it turns out, is not a mega city.

 Its population is only a couple million and they are confined within a fairly small municipal district. While the distinctions add to its somewhat ineffable peculiarity, KL has become a hub of economic activity in recent decades like several other Southeast Asian cities. Yet behind the veneer that would have lay observers dismiss it as a slight variation on a regional archetype lies a rich landscape of governmental, social, and cultural tension.

Divisions among Malay, Indian, and Chinese ethnicities; the constraints of presiding Islamic dogma; and, an influx of migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees figure prominently among the challenges facing Malaysia. The latter issue – especially as it concerns Chin refugees from Burma – has been the object of our inquiry since arriving in KL.
Chin children at the CSO learning center
 Beating our heels into the pavement, craning our necks in search of landmarks to guide us to the offices of various Chin organization, sweating and heaving breaths under the hard sun and foul air pressing down upon KL, all that fades away in the back room of third floor tenements where we sit with people like Khamh Bawi Hum (pronounced like “Kum Boi Hoom”), a refugee from western Burma and Chairman of the Chin Student Organization (CSO).

Khamh received a university education in Burma, but his work to improve the lives of his fellow Chin thereafter created problems for him with the central government in Rangoon. In 2009, he fled to Malaysia where some of his relatives lived. Incredibly, he chose to continue working to improve the lot of his fellow Chin, joining the CSO to help furnish children with an education and job training. The wide, toothy grin that stretches across Khamh’s face when he says that he will go for his first pre-departure medical check-up on Thursday is heartwarming.

That irrepressible smile reveals how treasured an opportunity is his: to find a permanent home in the United States. It is what most of the 125,000 Chin in Malaysia are seeking, an opportunity that only a fortunate few will receive. Khamh hopes that the 390 students enrolled at CSO learning centers will have a chance at a better life, here or in the West, because they are educated. It is a hope on which the welfare of many lives depends.