Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Dream path from Burmese prison to NZ tertiary education

Ye Tun Oo says he likes living in uncrowded Hamilton. Photo / Christine Cornege
Ye Tun Oo says he likes living in uncrowded Hamilton. Photo / Christine Cornege

Learning English was just a dream for Ye Tun Oo, let alone being able to start a degree in an English-speaking country.

But the Burmese refugee has now begun a Bachelor of Information Technology degree after starting a new life in New Zealand.

The 44-year-old was imprisoned for nine years for taking part in a 1988 uprising against Burma's decades-old military regime. At times he was shackled and beaten.

But occasionally there was hope for the former student activist and member of Burma's National League for Democracy political party.

Though education in prison was illegal and pen and paper forbidden, Ye Tun found ways to write and swapped ideas and knowledge with fellow inmates to continue learning. Those caught were subjected to 10 days of beatings, a punishment he suffered on one occasion.

Ye Tun was 18 and still in high school when he took part in the protests.

He was arrested in 1992, sent to a detention centre and moved among some of the 40 centres set up to hold the thousands of political prisoners at the time.

On his release Ye Tun tried to rebuild his life but monitoring by the regime meant he feared for his safety and eventually he escaped to neighbouring Thailand as a refugee.

In a Thai refugee camp he met Ohn Mar, now his wife, whose father was killed in the long-running civil war.

They lived with Ohn Mar's mother, Tin Nyo, but it was after the couple's son, Min Thant Aung, was born in 2010 that Ye Tun decided to try to make a new life.

"He's just a kid. He's innocent. He didn't participate in any movement and in the refugee camp, that's no future.

"That is why I chose to leave Thailand."

The family arrived in New Zealand in January 2012 as refugees and settled in Hamilton.

After learning English through Wintec's Centre for Languages, Ye Tun has kick-started an education he had craved for 20 years. "That's been a big help because with the language barrier, we couldn't do anything."

Ye Tun says the family are trying to have as normal a life as possible in a country where the language and culture are foreign. Hamilton has been a welcome change.

"I like Hamilton because there's no crowd and less pollution and traffic than in a big city."

The family spend time at Hamilton Gardens and Hamilton Lake and Ye Tun says his son, now 4, is bilingual and has a better grasp of the English language than his parents. "He's often correcting us. He gets language from school and movies and YouTube."

As Ye Tun starts his degree, his wife, 34, is starting a certificate in technology to prepare her for a degree, most likely specialising in food technology. Ye Tun plans to use his degree to help build business relationships between New Zealand and Burma.

- NZ Herald

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