Burmese Days and banana leaves


Burmese Days - San San MawNearly twenty years ago, she was a student revolutionary fighting the Burmese Army on the Thai-Burma border. Living in a moving camp, on little supplies and being a medic to the wounded. Today, San San Maw is sitting, relaxed, on her couch in her home in an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne. She seems to be able to recall this time as though it wasn't so long ago.

San San, a slight woman of less than five feet, was a fourth year student of Burmese literature in 1988, when there were mass protests by civilians all over Burma. She was a member of the Kayah Student Organisation. "We organised an uprising — we wanted to change the government," she says firmly. "All of the public became involved with us...it was like a whole country movement that came alive."

"When we were meeting we heard they [the military] had taken power and we were too scared to go home." After camping out overnight she returned to her home before dawn. She learnt from her father that the police had been there the night before, looking for her. Concerned for her safety, her father urged her to leave. San San says in bewilderment, "So, I left."

She and twelve other students started a journey, only knowing that other students were gathering somewhere on the Thai-Burma border. They trekked their way through wild jungle, taking a round about route to avoid detection. They travelled up and down mountains, through rivers, without proper clothing or supplies. "After halfway my thongs were broken," she says with a laugh, "we had no idea what we were doing".

They didn't have a map or a compass either. But they navigated their way with the help of rural villagers. At each village a local was chosen to guide the group to the next village. She explains, "They were on our side, they also wanted change." They finally found the large camp of students who had gathered near the border of Thailand, in the Karen province, after nine long days. There were about 400 other students there already.

Burmese Days - San San Maw The camp was constantly under military gunfire and this forced the students to engage in combat. San San Maw and the other women took part in military training alongside the men. The women wanted to fight, she says, but the men wouldn’t allow it. She says with annoyance, "We had the same training as the men — they should’ve let us!"

Instead the women tended to the wounded. Fighting was intermittent but constant. "There would be a fight, then there would be one, maybe two weeks until the next one." They had to move the camp constantly to keep out of their way. She says, "Three of my friends died."

She learnt how to cook with little food. Their food preparation involved piling a large amount of cooked rice on a sheet of plastic. In the middle of the rice a well was made for any food they could gather. It was often bananas, "First we took green bananas. Then when they ran out they had the leaves. Then when they ran out, the roots."

Their bamboo huts were made to be easily taken down and put up. The floor was above the ground on small stilts, with walls that were only about waist height, and no doors. This let the bitter cold in. "Life was very hard. Many students were weak — there wasn’t enough food or medicine. They got malaria or suffered from depression."

She discovered an old childhood friend from her home village, Richard Tehray, was in the camp. They became close friends, though "very argumentative", she says humorously. "Then one day", she says with surprise, "it just clicked. We started being boyfriend and girlfriend." Years later they married and had a son, Andrew.

Burmese Days - San San Maw They eventually came to Australia with refugee status. Richard had been in his last years of a veterinary degree when he left Burma, and San San had been in her final year. These years were lost, but Richard completed a new degree in Australia and is now a pathologist. San San plans to return to study also, when Andrew is more independent. In the meantime she is working as a personal carer in a hospital.

She says that they were very lucky; many of their friends who came at the same time have not adjusted as well, experiencing post-traumatic stress and culture shock. "Being a family helps," she says. "We have each other and not everyone else who came over had or has that now. We are very, very lucky."

After dinner, I was farewelled at the door, supplied with containers of food — enough to feed me for the next few days. I realised later this was a bit like the villagers did for her, when she was on the run twenty-odd years ago. Perhaps as if she is still returning the favour.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Nice one Sarah!
Peter | 14 June 2007

I found this article very interesting
because presently I am reading the a/biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. I see here a connection between them. I hope one day she will be free likeSan san.
Emmanuel Sant | 20 June 2007


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up