Weekly column by Kāpiti mayor K Gurunathan.
It's intriguing how life's journey weaves its tapestry through time. Last week, I received a call for help from former Paekākāriki Community Board member Helen Keivom. She is helping fellow resident Katie Julian organise a fundraiser for the victims affected by the brutal military crackdown on civilian protesters in Myanmar. The fundraiser is on April 16 at Paekākāriki's St Peters Hall at 6.30pm. Helen is from the Mizo tribe of northeastern India.
The Indian state bordering Myanmar has witnessed a deluge of refugees fleeing the Chin tribal areas on the Myanmar side of the border attacked by Myanmar military forces. The Chin and Mizo are the same tribal people historically divided by arbitrary boundaries imposed by the British colonial power. Katie, of Māori descent, had first lived and worked in the camps along the Myanmar/Thai border helping the students who had fled the country after the military crackdown following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising. Katie had continued working in the education field along these border refugee communities. Since 2008 she has been based in Yangon/Rangoon and had been back in Paekākāriki last year when Covid-19 struck and she had been unable to return.
My own Burmese connection started in my mid-teens on the Malaysian island of Penang. My Chinese schoolmate lived in a house on stilts along one of the jetties on the Port Swettenham waterfront. We used to jump into his little sampan or dingy and row out to one of the big traditional junks from where we cast our fishing lines. Often the boats that readily allowed us on board were from the ports of Burma. Mostly trading in rice, spices, and contraband and returning with manufactured products. The trading route between Burma and the ports of West Malaya were ancient. And there was a thriving but small Burmese community in Penang.
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Something I discovered a few years later when, after my 6th form, I had applied for admission into a New Zealand university, and I had a three-month wait. I decided to use that time to experience the life of a novice Buddhist monk. I was ordained at the Dhammikarama Burmese Temple at Burma Rd for my three-month spiritual journey. Through this active religious link I discovered the rich social network of the temple into the local Burmese community. I also found that the ancient barter trading links at Port Swettenham were part of the business connections of this permanent Burmese community on Penang Island. Fate was to deal another hand on this journey.
In 1984, having finished my studies in New Zealand, I had returned to my hometown of Penang with my Kiwi family, working as a journalist on mainstream media and then in 1986 as editor of the paper owned by Malaysia's main opposition party and published in Penang.
In late 1988, I was contacted by members of the local Burmese community working with an NGO. Then followed meetings where I met students on the run from the horrific crackdown on student protesters involved in the August 1988 popular uprising against the military dictatorship. These political refugees were using the ancient trading routes. From the Burmese/Thai border camps to the ports of Burma and to the outside world. These human contraband found shelter amongst their diaspora. And today, fate weaves its tapestry again.
In my opinion the corrupt military junta is again crushing the democratic will of the people of Myanmar. The Burmese diaspora across the world is seeking the helping hand of their host communities. Join Katie, Helen and others on April 16. Meet members of our Burmese community, many will travel from outside the district, enjoy some kai together and listen to the speakers. It's intriguing how life's journey weaves its tapestry through time. All those years ago, when I cast my fishing line from a Burmese junk into the tepid waters of Port Swettenham, I never knew what I was going to catch.