At HKU, students from Myanmar raise awareness of strife at home

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 3:36pm

Among the excited first-year students who arrived on the University of Hong Kong campus last September, there was one man who has seen far more of the world's grimness than the average Hong Kong undergraduate.

Htoi Awng, 22, is from northern Myanmar's Kachin state, where ethnic Kachin rebels have been fighting government forces with renewed intensity after a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011.

Htoi Awng and two other Kachin students in Hong Kong shared their experience at a fundraising concert for Kachin refugees last week, raising over HK$5,000 for the Relief Action Network charity.

Video by Hedy Bok

"Hong Kong people know only about Aung San Suu Kyi," Htoi Awng said in an interview, referring to the Nobel Peace laureate and politician who spent 15 years under house arrest.

"People think Burma [the former name for Myanmar] changed after she was released, but it has not. We have so-called democratic elections, but the problem is the parliament is controlled by the military … You can't ask sensitive questions in parliament, like how many people have died in the civil war. Since 2011 there has been so much foreign direct investment, but the money goes to the cronies who work together with the military and former generals. Poor people from my country are still poor."

Htoi Awng earned his first bachelor's degree, in German, at the University of Foreign Languages in Mandalay.

During that time he saw the effects of Myanmar's civil strife first-hand, organising lessons in English and personal hygiene for people who had fled their homes to escape the fighting.

He won a full scholarship to study for his second bachelor's degree, in government and law, at HKU.

Htoi Awng hopes Kachin state will remain part of Myanmar, but wants its cultural uniqueness to be embraced. For one, many Kachin people are Christian, which has made them unpopular in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Further, the Kachin people speak a different language from other Myanmese. "It is not just different in dialect like with Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese. The Burmese and Kachin languages are totally different," Htoi Awng said. "If you are a Christian and a Kachin, it may be possible to be a civil servant but it will be very difficult to move higher up" the career ladder.

The violence in Kachin state has sparked allegations that security forces are attacking civilians, committing acts of rape and torture and recruiting child soldiers.