Powerful Voices of Witness: Fighting for Freedom from Burma's Brutal Military

Twenty-three-year-old Byin Pu tells the story of how she left home for China to earn money for her family and ended up being exploited and assaulted.

The following is an excerpt from Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma's Military Regime compiled and edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West, published by McSweeney's.

23, student
BIRTHPLACE: Kutkai Township, Burma
INTERVIEWED IN: Mae Sot, Thailand

Byin Pu met us in a tall wooden house that a half dozen American NGO workers rent on the Thailand-Burma border. The interpreter for our interview picked her upon the back of his motorbike and brought her to meet us, as a spinal injury prevents Byin Pu from being able to drive. As a child, Byin Pu dreamed of one day becoming a school teacher, but instead of pursuing her education, she quit attending school and went to China to work when she was just fifteen. In China, Byin Pu met a difficult set of circumstances, including exploitation and an attempted assault, and found herself fighting for her freedom. After a serious injury incurred during one harrowing incident, Byin Pu came to the Thailand-Burma border for medical care.

I Felt Like She Was My Child

When I was fifteen, I decided that I really wanted to help my family and support my younger brother to go to school. I had worked as a house servant in Kutkai for two months, but I only earned 5,000 kyats each month. My friends told me that I could go to China and work as a housemaid -- I could take care of a baby and do housework and earn 30,000 kyats in one month. Then my elder brother Naw told me that his wife's aunt in Shweli, China needed someone to help with her children. In December of 2002, I left Kutkai and went to China. Naw accompanied me. The journey from Kutkai to Shweli is about 100 miles. First we took a bus from Kutkai to Muse, passing the 105-mile checkpoint gate. Since we didn't have ID cards, we took a ten-minute boat ride from Muse to cross the river into Shweli. After we reached Shweli, it took us over an hour to walk to the house.

By this time, I had already used all my money to travel.

The house owner's name was Awng Li and his wife's name was Seng Nu, and they were Kachin. In the beginning, they said that my only job was to take care of their six-month-old baby girl, Lu Mai, and their son, Brang Aung. But there were guests coming all the time, so I had to prepare the guest room; I would sleep on the chairs in the dining room.

We would usually all eat together in the house, but most of the time the baby was crying while everyone was eating breakfast or lunch, so I had to take care of her. When I came back from caring for the baby and looked at the table, there was usually very little food remaining.

The baby's parents were never home. The father was always traveling for business, and the mother also spent all her time traveling or playing dominoes. That made me angry.

Whenever the baby slept during the day, I had to clean the whole house, wash all the clothes, and do all of the cooking. I had no chance to rest. Whenever she cried during the night, I had to get up and prepare more formula. Sometimes I would collapse from exhaustion.

My whole body smelled like the baby and I felt like it was really my child. At the time I was so young and I didn't have a boyfriend, but I felt like I was a mother.

They Wanted Me to Be Family

At the beginning, I felt like helping them because I thought we were part of one family. But after I had been working for six months, I still had not been paid. I asked the house owners many times to please pay me, but they gave me nothing. They just ordered me around: "You have to do this. You must do that." They'd say, "We have a problem and we cannot pay you, but we are all the same family, so you should help us." When it came to working, they treated me like a slave. When it came to paying me, they wanted me to be family.

Around that same time, my family in Burma called me and told me that my grandfather had passed away. I wanted to go back to Burma to visit my relatives and to give them comfort, but the house owners would not let me go.

I Had No Choice

I was never beaten or physically tortured by the house owners, but I had one problem when the mother went for a week to visit her native place in Xinjiang.

While she was away, the baby slept in her bedroom and I had to sing her songs to help her fall asleep; sometimes I would fall asleep too. One morning when I opened my eyes, I saw that Awng Li, the baby's father, was lying beside me and looking at me. I didn't know if he had touched me or not, but I was so afraid I just got up and left the room. One of our neighbors was staying as a guest at the house, and when she saw me she said, "What's the problem?" I felt very ashamed and scared, so I said, "Oh, nothing's wrong."

When Awng Li gave me 20 yuan to buy vegetables at the market, I put the money in my pocket and decided that maybe on my way to buy food, I would run away. I left the house and then realized that if I went back to Burma at that moment, I wouldn't have any money for my family. I would have nothing. I kept thinking about what I should do.

Then I looked behind me toward the house and Awng Li was coming toward me on a bicycle, watching to see if I would try to run away or not. I had no choice but to go back to the house. Awng Li never said anything to me about what happened.

I Just Walked Out

After more than a year had passed, I still had not been paid. I pleaded to the house owners, "Please, now it's been one year and four months and you haven't paid me anything. Please allow me to work somewhere else in Shweli." But they still refused to pay me.

I decided to leave the house. In the end, I wasn't helping my family, and I was also abandoning my education. I felt like I had no freedom.

I decided to go and work in a restaurant owned by a couple I knew, a Kachin man and his Chinese wife. Early one morning, I just put my clothes in a plastic bag and I told Awng Li and Seng Nu that I was leaving. They didn't want me to leave the house, but I just walked out. They did not say anything when I left. I met the Kachin man and followed him to his restaurant.

I think the house owners didn't pay me because they looked down on me. My family was not wealthy or educated or very strong in the Kachin community. They thought that if anything happened to me, no one would come to protect me. This is also one of the underlying reasons I was later trafficked.

My Bitter Experience

After I stopped working as a housemaid, I went to work in the restaurant owned by the Kachin man I had followed. I did not have any education, so I wanted to learn how to cook. I thought it would give me a skill to use into the future so I could survive when I got older. My plan was to borrow a little bit of money and then open up a small restaurant.

In 2007, I started working at a Chinese restaurant. I was very happy to work there, even though I got a small salary. I was asked to work as a receptionist because I could speak Chinese, Burmese, and Kachin, and I'm polite. I woke up very early every morning and worked really hard. The first month I got 120 yuan, and the second month I got 150. The owners really appreciated my work, but the other workers in the restaurant did not like me. One of the owners was Roman Catholic and she allowed me time off to go to church, so the other workers were jealous, I think.

My co-workers were nine women. They were from Lashio, in Burma, and they were all ethnic Chinese. I was the only Kachin and the only Christian of the workers. One of my co-workers, a woman called Ah Ying, would speak very sweetly to me and call me honey, and we would eat together sometimes. We were just acquaintances, but we'd talk every day.

The women all knew that I didn't have an ID or passport from Burma. Because they hated me, they decided to sell my body.

I Told Them I Didn’t Want to Drink

The date was August 20, 2007. That night, I took my bicycle and started going toward my friend's house to stay with her for the night.

On the way, Ah Ying called to say that her cousin wanted to join her at a party but didn't know how to find it, so she wanted to use my bicycle to go and meet him. I told her that I was using my bicycle, but that I could go with her to meet her cousin and take him to the party.

After walking for about five minutes, we reached a big restaurant and nightclub. I waited outside on my bicycle while Ah Ying went inside to get her cousin, Li Qiang. I didn't know it at the time, but they were talking about me in there. When they came out of the restaurant, they pressured me to go inside the nightclub and enjoy the party with them. I was very tired and wanted to rest that night. Also, I had heard that the clubs could be dangerous. But Ah Ying was a friend from the restaurant, so I didn't think she would do anything bad to me.

I told them, "You can enjoy the nightclub and so on, but I have relatives who live near the club so I will leave soon and visit them." So they took me into the nightclub, but then they said, "Oh, this nightclub is full of people and there is no place to sit. We'll go to a different club."

We took a taxi to another place, but I didn't really feel like going there. At the next club, we met with five women from the restaurant where I worked, and two men. Everyone was singing karaoke. I told them that I didn't want to drink any alcohol because I had to get up early to work the next morning. They got a little bit angry and said I asked to go home too many times.

Then Ah Ying told me that Li Qiang wanted to talk to me, and that he was waiting for me outside the karaoke room. I said that I didn't want to go outside to see him, and asked what was going on. As a woman, I was afraid to go outside alone.

Then Li Qiang came back into the karaoke room. He sat beside me and smoked a cigarette. My co-workers started grabbing my hands and pouring shots of alcohol into my mouth, even though I didn't want it. At that time, it was really noisy in the room. Everyone was singing and drinking and smoking.

It was the first time I'd had alcohol, and my head started to hurt. I wanted to rest. Li Qiang was outside the room again and another woman said to me, "If you are afraid to go outside alone, the two of us can go outside to meet him together." The woman just took me and we went.

Li Qiang was sitting by the door smoking a cigarette. He said that he wanted to talk to me, but that he was a little bit shy. The woman I went outside with said, "I will let the two of you talk," and then she just left. Li Qiang said, "You can sit beside me and we'll talk." He started telling me his feelings about his family, and I told him that after he finished talking, I would go back inside the room.

"No please just sit, and I will share," he said. "I haven't finished sharing my personal feelings yet." So he just continued talking nonstop about his feelings. When he told me that he didn't have his father as a child, I sympathized with him because I had the same experience. I think at that time he may have thought that I was soft, and easy to persuade. After a while, he looked at me very seriously and told me that he fell in love with me the first time he saw me. I just lied to him and said, "You're too late. I already have a boyfriend."

Just after he told me that he was in love with me, a car arrived in front of the restaurant. Three young man came out and grabbed me and pushed me into the car. I was holding on to the car window and I kept shouting, "Please, save me! Save me!" Li Qiang got into the car. Three waiters from the restaurant saw what was happening, but they just thought it was a fight between a girlfriend and a boyfriend, because they saw that we'd already been talking together for about an hour.

I pleaded with the driver not to drive away. Li Qiang pushed me and said to the driver, "I paid to use this car. You have to drive."

We drove away and Li Qiang was grabbing my hands. We were driving for about fifteen minutes and I continuously tried to resist, but I couldn't. I realized that I was really in trouble. Finally we reached a guesthouse with a small gate.

An old man who worked at the guesthouse opened the gate for us. Just as he opened the door, I shouted to him, "They've abducted me! This is not my choice!" But Li Qiang told the old man to do what he said. The gate was locked behind us, and I was brought into the guesthouse.

I tried to hold on to the side of the stairs and refuse to go up, but Li Qiang was very strong. His face was red, and he looked angry. I think he was very drunk or had done a lot of drugs. He grabbed my body and pushed my back very forcibly until I was in pain. He pushed me up the stairs, and when we reached the third floor, he opened the door to one room, pushed me in, and then closed the door behind us.

I asked him, "What are you doing?" He said, "Oh, we'll call your friends again and tell them we'll sleep here tonight." He held his phone and pressed the numbers as though he was calling, but he was just pretending. I grabbed his phone, but he just took it back.

I went to the bathroom and closed the door, but he kept knocking on the door and trying to force it open, saying, "Please open the door. I love you." I tried to look for a stick or a knife or anything that I could defend myself with, but I couldn't find anything. As I was thinking about how to escape, I saw there was another door in the bathroom. It was a little bit open and I saw there was another room with three or four men sleeping without their clothes on. I was so afraid when I saw them. I thought that it was more men who could rape me, so I closed the door in the bathroom and then I went back to the other room.

I said to Li Qiang, "There is only one sleeping cot and only one room. Do you think I am a prostitute? Did you negotiate for this?"

I was thinking about how I could find an excuse to leave, so I told him that I wanted to eat noodles. But he said that he would phone the front desk and that they would bring the food to me. So then I told him that I wanted to drink some tea, so that he would have to leave to get hot water. So he left the room, but he made sure that he locked the door behind him so I could not leave.

He came back with the hot water, but I didn't actually want to drink it. I ran to the door and tried to open it. Then Li Qiang realized that I was trying to run away, and he pushed me onto the cot.

I was worried that if I tried anything else that he would get angrier and that he might torture me. So I sat with him on the cot. He said, "Oh, I love you so much," and then he put his arms around me and started trying to rape me.

I thought about how hard I had worked during my life. Ever since I was a child, I had been trying very hard for myself and for my family, and I didn't want to have an incident like this in my life. So when he tried to kiss me, I just bit his tongue. He was in a lot of pain. He grabbed my clothes and tried to hit my face. I prayed to God, Please save me. Let me survive.

Li Qiang missed my face when he tried to hit me. He had glasses so I grabbed them and threw them to the ground. I was afraid, but I was also angry. He was looking for his glasses and finally he found them and put them back on. When he put them on, his eyes were very sharp and angry.

He could not speak because of the pain in his tongue, so he pointed at my face and looked into my eyes, and I understood that he would rape me or do whatever he wanted. He was very angry.

At that time I prayed to God, Please, what should I do? I looked around the room and saw that the window was not closed, and there was a screen to keep the mosquitoes out. I was three floors up. If I jumped, I would die. But if I died, it would at least be in an accident. I prayed again to God. If I died, I would not be able to support my family. But I did not want to live if I was raped.

I didn't know if the screen would be locked or not, but it just opened. I took the screen out of the window and I jumped. I tried to grab the roof of the house next door, but I was falling too fast, and then my back hit the ground.

My whole body was covered in blood, but at the time I felt no pain. All I could think about was trying to escape. With all of my energy, I tried to stand up to run, but my legs wouldn't move. The whole lower part of my body wouldn't move. I could only move my hand.

The accident happened at about four-thirty in the morning. The family in the house next door had woken up when I fell to the ground. The house members and other neighbors came out and were looking at me. I was shouting in Chinese, "Please save me! If you help me, I will never forget it and I will find some way to pay you back, however I can!"

But at the same time Li Qiang was shouting from up above on the third floor of the hotel, "Why did you do this? I love you. Why did you jump?" He was speaking very sweetly. Then he came down to where I was, and although everyone was looking at me, no one helped. I thought that if I kept shouting it might cause more problems for me, so I decided to pretend that I was dead. He took my body and carried me to the street. He tried to stop a taxi, but my whole body was covered in blood, and none of the drivers wanted to take me.

After another taxi passed, he decided to try blocking the road to force a taxi to take me to the hospital. He tried to push my body into a taxi and told the driver, "Please go to the Shweli Hospital. This is my wife." But the driver did not want to go. Then he told the driver, "If my wife dies, the responsibility will be yours, so please go." The driver took us.

While we were going to the hospital, Li Qiang told me, "Oh Byin Pu, please answer me. If you die, I will also die." He spoke to me very sweetly, but I remembered what he had done, what he had said. I was very afraid and I still pretended to be dead. Finally we arrived at Shweli Hospital.

Maggie Lemere has traveled and worked in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. She holds an MA in international peace & conflict resolution from American University in Washington DC. Maggie focuses her writing and photography projects on human rights; she has worked on Burma issues in the US and Southeast Asia. She lives in Washington, DC. Zoë West is a writer whose work investigates social issues and cultural exchange. Zoë grew up in the U.S. and has since lived and worked in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Central America. She is pursuing graduate studies in social anthropology at the University of Oxford.
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