Monday, July 7, 2008

Thay Htoo

Thay Htoo sits across from me while we wait for a fax. He is ethnic Karen from Burma, about 50 years old, and he smiles softly when I look up at him. He is of small stature. Thay Htoo is gentle and soft spoken, but quick to smile. There is something deep about his eyes, something different. His eyes don't smile. He always looks a little bit tired, but his mood seems steadily pleasant. He has a sense of humor and he is eager to help others smile.

The day before we waited for the fax, Thay Htoo came to me with a large manila envelope. He handed the envelope to me with two hands and a slight bow, saying, "My story. Please read my story." He backed away a little bit and then excused himself. I assumed he needed a snack or to use the restroom.

I pulled a stack of papers out of the envelope. This was a collection of immigration documents, mostly, but there was a neatly typed letter on top. The paper was very light and the letter had been written on a typewrite, not on a computer.

I started to read. This really was Thay Htoo's story. As I read it, my eyes filled with tears. This kind, sweet man, this gentle human being had seen horror and had emerged with bravery and honor in his heart.

Thay Htoo first ran into trouble with the Burmese government in 1988. As a young man, he eagerly and with a sense of duty, participated in demonstrations in the streets of Rangoon. He was arrested and taken to jail. There was no trial, no lawyer, no self-defense. Over the course of the next 18 years, Thay Htoo lived in deplorable conditions. The prisons were a brutal place, and he was moved frequently from one to another.

Thay Htoo was tortured for no real reason other than for his jailers to humiliate him. Besides the physical torture, Thay Htoo was subjected to a litany of mental and emotional abuses, the cruelest of which was extended stays in solitary confinement.

Thay Htoo spent more than 16 years of 18 imprisoned in solitary. He was only out of solitary for a few sporadic months among the almost two decades he was incarcerated. His family had no idea where he was, if he was alive or dead, hiding or in custody. He does not know even today what became of his wife and children.

Thay Htoo made a desperate escape from prison in the late fall of 2007. At the time, there were violent, bloody protests once again on the streets of Rangoon, now called Yangon. Thay's story indicated something I never saw coming. He made his way through the streets and saw the protests being led by the monks. Only one thing came to his mind.

He said that rather than keep running to a safe location, it was his duty as a good Buddhist to join the monks and march along with them. And so he did, until the brutality of the police and soldiers was around him, and he realized that staying would mean certain capture and probably death.

A quiet group of democracy-seeking Burmese moved Thay Htoo from safe house to safe house until he was on the banks of the Moei River. Unable to cross via any regular border crossing, he made his way under cover of night, straining against a fierce current in a rowboat.

Once he was on the Thai side of the border, he remained in hiding. He was hungry, wet, and feeling the effects of a body locked in hot, damp prisons for 18 years. While it was still dark out, he found his way to the jungle that parallels the road to Mae Sot. His letter continued, detailing the fact that he couldn't venture into the city because the Burmese military is undercover there looking for escapees. He was a marked man, twice over.

For a week, Thay Htoo slowly made his way through dense jungle until he had walked the 40 miles to Mae La, a sprawling UN refugee camp that is emptying slowly. Normally, a potential refugee must go to an official office in a city in the second country. After an interview, the person is then assigned a camp destination. Having circumvented the process, a fatigued Thay Htoo showed up at the gates of Mae La and petitioned for asylum.

His story told of his injuries, but he kept his emotional wounds to himself. He finished his story by telling his dream: It was not to have a new life in a new country. No, Thay Htoo dreamed of peace in Burma, of democracy and human rights. He made no mention of any dreams for himself.

The fax came just as Thay Htoo returned. I realized then that he had left not because he had something to do, but because he couldn't bear to be present for the reading of his story. I handed the fax to Thay Htoo. He put his left hand on his right wrist as he accepted the paper with downcast eyes and a slight nod. Then he smiled and thanked me. He thanked me again.

I saw a flicker of sadness pass across his face. He was alone here. He had been granted expedited processing out of Thailand before he had a chance to really catch his breath. This kind of priority priority was something usually reserved for government officials and friends of the US government. It was apparent that immigration feared for his safety in Mae La.

For the rest of the day, I thought about Thay Htoo. His eyes always have the color of sadness in them, despite his beautiful smile. It seems impossible that anyone could endure such hardship, brutality, and loss and still emerge with such a positive attitude and such a beautiful soul. He is completely alone here. He deserves better, this sweet, gentle, kind, and honorable man.

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