“Seeds of destruction take root in the human heart, and even among those who long for peace, they call to our darker instincts and urge us to violence.”
― Victoria Armour-Hileman, Singing to the Dead: A Missioner's Life among Refugees from Burma
For M Tu Aung, 46, life has always existed as an endless cycle of running — running from danger, running into the unknown, running to lands far away and then running in circles in the hopes someone might hear his cries and prayers.
“We had to run whenever the military would come in. They would try to kill all the people, they would set fire to the villages and burn down the churches,” recalled Aung. He was raised in the predominantly Christian Kachin State of Burma — also known by its 1989 regime re-title Myanmar — during a time of socialist military governance. “If you could not run, if you were not fast enough, you would be taken by the Burmese Army. Many times, people were killed, and yet we could not stop to bury the bodies — if they caught you, they would kill you. Some of my family members who were running beside me were caught.”
Burma has been burned alive by endless conflicts and persecution since the British handed the country back its independence in 1948. Given the endless wars, Aung never knew his biological parents and was adopted as an infant. He also never knew a life not beset by killing fields.
“They (Armed Forces) wanted all the property for themselves. We always had to run and leave our village and property behind. Everything would be ruined; the Army has no regard for human life,” he continued. “Every day, we lived in fear. We worried, day and night, they would come.”
Even if there were peaceful moments inside the threads of the jungle, idyllic in their stillness, they were beset by biting anxiety. There were no warning signs, Aung said, just a crackle of gunfire and howls of panic whenever the troops would force their way in.
“What I remember most about my childhood is how the soldiers would just come into our villages and take anything they wanted. And they would take the people — sometimes 15 or 16 years old,” he whispered.
Like many from the region, the more painful the topic, the more the survivor laughs — an uncomfortable defense mechanism to mask the invisible wounds nested into memory.
“The Burmese Army would kill and torture — and they would rape,” he said slowly. “I remembered the faces of the young girls and women who they would take away to rape. We didn’t know exactly where they were taking them, but the ladies — most of them — never came back.”
Aung believes he only survived a tumultuous upbringing because his adoptive parents moved him to Rakhine State when he was 15, a state that — back then — was somewhat less butchered.
A decade ago, Aung was granted asylum in the United States with the wild hope for a better life. He studied for an MBA and opened a small business in Maryland. He fell in love with another refugee from Burma, married and had three children, and is heavily involved in the local community of Baptist churches.
But it’s the place he left behind that occupies his mind during most waking hours. He exhibits a dogged devotion in reaching out to the powers of Washington as an active leader in the Nationalities Alliance of Burma, a network of ethnic nationalities organizations based in the United States.
“It has always been about a ‘burmainization’ of the country, of everyone else not in the military circle being treated as second class,” Aung lamented. “The Burmese military wants us to protect themselves. It is why they are killing protestors and civilians every day.”
Some of Aung’s frustrations have stemmed from the notion that little has been conveyed to the public about the suffering of Christians in Burma. Most of the world is painfully aware of the persecution that the Muslim Rohingyas have endured in recent years in the Rakhine State he settled in as a teen, with many forced to flee into bordering Bangladesh. Aung said Christians have also been slaughtered and have had their houses of worship razed into nothingness, but have been “weak” at conveying the situation on social media.
“The ethnic cleansing has been happening since long before that of the Rohingya people,” Aung stressed.
Watching his homeland once again be dipped in chaos and blood following the coup in February 2021, in which the military wrestled power back from the first civilian government, Aung feels the urge to keep running. He’s calling for the international community to step in and support a transitional government in that illustrious chase for a free and fair election, calling for the people of Burma to decide their fate.
And despite 10 years in the United States, Aung clings to a life of trauma that reminds him he may never truly know what it is to be safe and secure. He leads a minimalist life with no stockpiling — when all one knows is to run, less is more — and his body is engulfed by chills at the mere sight of any uniformed soldier.
“Even here in the U.S., I just don’t want to see a soldier. It scares me,” he notes with a nervous giggle. “All that is really left, all we can do, is pray for protection. That helps us a lot.”
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