The World

In Exile, Shah Paung Writes of Burma Struggle

Friday, February 29, 2008

In a Thai refugee camp Shah Paung found that writing stories was one way to resist the Myanmar military dictatorship she had fled. She continues to report news smuggled out by informants even as the world's focus has turned from Burma.

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The Karen people face persecution in BurmaCHIANG MAI, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)--Shah Paung, a reporter for a magazine that is the leading source of news about Burma, first remembers Burmese troops attacking her village when she was 5 years old.

"I remember my brothers were playing volleyball in front of the house," she said. "I felt the ground shake. My mom grabbed me from the floor," recalls the writer for the Irrawaddy, a magazine based in northern Thailand.

That was around 1989, the year when the junta established the Union of Myanmar, a name that pro-democracy activists still reject. For the next 10 years Shah Paung's ethnic Karen village came under repeated attack as the military junta carried out a brutal offensive against the peoples of eastern Burma.

In 1999, with only their clothes and some rice, Shah Paung's family fled to Thailand, walking three days through the jungle, hiding from Burmese soldiers and eventually landing in a refugee camp.

In the face of one of the world's most brutal military regimes, Shah Paung says she is accustomed to feeling helpless.

"I had been angry, I had thought about joining the armed struggle," she said. "That was before I realized the best way to help my people was reporting their truth."

Nine years after her family's escape, Shah Paung--who, like many Burmese, has only one name--has now committed herself to reporting the ongoing conflict in Burma, where the military government continues to attack and burn down ethnic villages and rape is used as a weapon of war against local women by Burmese soldiers.

"I have no village now; it's all gone," she said. "Now all I can do is try to help those still suffering inside by writing."

At the Irrawaddy, which was started in 1992 by exiles living in Thailand, Shah Paung reports on the heavily isolated country via a network of secret informants communicating largely via mobile phone.

Frontline of Crisis

Sometimes her reporting also takes her across the border, where she meets with Karen people on the frontlines: resistance fighters, medics and human rights workers.

She says it's difficult to leave them and return to Thailand. "But I know my skills are best used writing," she said. "I would be no help on the battlefield."

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