Eight years on, a Myanmar Chin family in Malaysia seeks a new home

The family in their rented room without the eldest, teenage son. — Pix by Choo Choy May
The family in their rented room without the eldest, teenage son. — Pix by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, June 20 — Cung Cung was six years old when he made the week-long journey from Myanmar’s Chin state to Malaysia all by himself.

Now all of 10, he barely remembers that trip and has only a hazy memory of his home.

“I remember we have a big garden, and there is a field near our house where I played football with my friends,” he said after a pause, his eyebrows knit and with finger on his chin.

Now Cung Cung has his family with him again. The family that was split apart in 2007 when father Obed initiated their migration, became complete when Cung Cung’s younger sibling joined them in 2011.

The family’s epic journey was told through a translator, Silas. Obed said he decided to leave his hometown for fear of Myanmar’s soldiers, who had roped him in as their porter many times in the past.

“I’ve been asked to be a porter for the soldiers many times, carry their heavy guns on my back.

“Some trips take only three hours, but some took more than 24 hours,” he told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview the room the family rents for RM400 a month in KL’s Golden Triangle district.

He said he could not refuse the soldiers: “I would have been shot”.

The two daughters playing in the shared area of their living space.
The two daughters playing in the shared area of their living space.

He took his whole family to an agent in Yangon to arrange to travel to Malaysia together but was told space was limited, which necessitated separate passage for him, his wife and their three children.

Obed recalled the bumpy first leg of his journey with 20 people all crammed together in a jeep, followed by a trek through dense jungle, often during the night.

He was picked up in a Pajero at the Thai-Malaysia border after the Golo river and driven straight into the Malaysian capital city where fellow Chin migrants helped him with food and rent for the first three months before he adjusted to his new life.

Obed’s wife, 35-year-old Sui followed him a year later, leaving their two young children behind. Cung Cung was next in 2011, and finally four-year-old Dawt that same year.

“Before children came, we could not eat, could not sleep,” said the father of three children now; their youngest, a girl was born two years ago in Malaysia.

Obed is the family breadwinner as Sui is unable to work due to a weak right leg, caused by polio when she was two.

He doesn’t have a steady job at the moment, but is currently working a 12-hour part-time job at a restaurant in the city where he gets to take home RM50 a day.

Sometimes, he would get construction work for RM40 a day, from 8am to 5pm.

Sui said she usually shops at the Imbi wet market but there is also a Chin shop and a Bangladeshi shop nearby she frequents as it sells vegetables, pork, chicken and beef at a slightly cheaper price.

“Most of the time we eat chicken because it’s the cheapest,” she said.

The Christian family are regulars at the Chin Christian Church Malaysia nearby where Obed plays the bass guitar. The church is one of the three Chin churches in the area.

Had he met with problems with the authorities?

He said the first time the police stopped him, they took his wallet, and took out everything he had. The first time was RM50, and the second time was RM200.

Other than that, he said, the police haven’t given him or his family much trouble.

An old picture of the family is pasted on the wooden closet in their rented room.
An old picture of the family is pasted on the wooden closet in their rented room.

Resettle to the US

After eight years in Malaysia, Obed said he is hoping to relocate to a new country for his children’s future.

He said the family has had three interviews with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, with the most recent last year but has yet to hear from the agency.

Obed said his children go to a school set up by the Chin Student Organisation, which teaches science, math, English and a Chin dialect but he hopes they can get a better level of education, which he believes is possible if they can move on from Malaysia.

“If possible, please help us write to any country so they can have an education,” he pleaded.

Sui doing laundry at the top floor of the old shophouse, right outside their room.
Sui doing laundry at the top floor of the old shophouse, right outside their room.

His wife chimed in: “I don’t want to stay in Malaysia because we are not free, I don’t feel free”.

Malay Mail Online understands that the UNHCR will no longer recognise the incoming Chins as refugees as there has been a ceasefire there in their region.

“Yes, but it is just a ceasefire. There is no democracy there,” Obed said in response to the new development in Myanmar.

Obed said 93 per cent of those in the Chin state are Christians and the Myanmar government would not allow them to build churches.

“If the government allows for real democracy, then I am ready to go back,” he said.

For the time being, he said the priority is to resettle, hopefully to the US.

“If we stay in Malaysia, it is not safe. Sometimes we meet with police, other times robbers,” he said.

Chin Student Organization chairman Robert Siang Lian Thang said the school needs financial help to sustain.
Chin Student Organization chairman Robert Siang Lian Thang said the school needs financial help to sustain.

Chin Student Organisation (CSO)

The CSO has managed to set up five learning centres in the Klang Valley but its chairman Robert Siang says the group is struggling to keep them open.

“There is not enough budget, so we stopped renting one lot at Loke Yew, instead of the usual two lots.

“Hopefully, the number of students will be lower because some will probably get resettled,” he said.

He said the Imbi centre’s monthly operating cost was RM17,000 because it also publishes a monthly Chin journal for the community. In comparison, other school costs about RM6,000 to run.

The centre with the most students is in Cheras with 120 students and five teachers, he said.

The schools are funded by the school fee of RM200 a month, and donation from a church nearby. He said the Berjaya Group was a sponsor for a year, but is no longer one. They do not have a sponsor at the moment.

Robert has only been the chairman for the past six months, and was in charge of the school in Sentul for about three years prior.

Before coming to Malaysia, Robert lived in Bangladesh as a refugee for five years.

After completing his Masters degree on a Christian scholarship, he worked as a teacher for one year; but he did not feel safe so he decided to make his way to Malaysia and it took him a month-and-a-half.

Robert’s journey is similar to Obed’s that saw his travel through jungles and crossing national borders at night, which was no less dangerous as sometimes he could hear gunfire nearby.

“I don’t look back, I just run,” he said, making the running motion while seated in his office.

“My agent warned me, if you stop, you will die, just go,” he said.

Like Obed, Robert feels restless and is eager to continue his education, hopefully in the US. He said he wants to get another Master’s degree, this time in Theology.

“But if I continue to have this chance to serve my people and teach, then I will be happy in Malaysia,” he said.

The Chins make up a large portion of the Myanmar community in Malaysia, with some 49,600 people here.

* The interviewees’ full names were not used in the article to protect their identities.