The Shan: Refugees without a Camp-review by Feraya

Aug 28th, 2009

I was flattered as well as apprehensive when Bernice Johnson requested that I should write a review on her book. Flattered because it is such an outstanding and important book, but apprehensive because I may not be able to be objective about it, being a Shan, and knowing the suffering of the Shan people, and of my own family, my grandfather being Sao Shwe Thaike, the first president of Burma and the Sao Hpa Long of Yawnghwe, who was arrested and killed in Insein prison.

However, this is a book that needs to be read by anyone who cares about other human beings and the survival of peoples, peoples victimized, persecuted, and cruelly and diabolically killed, raped, tortured, and that even in war torn countries there can be hope and goodness if we all care enough.

‘The Shan: Refugees without a Camp’ by Bernice Koehler Johnson is the story of Bernice Johnson’s repeated trips to northern Thailand to teach English to Shan Refugees. Bernice returns year on year to see the children grow in confidence as the years passed and finds a warmth and mutual respect that continues to this day. The stories of many of her students show us the plight that Shan youth face; some as orphans, others having fled forced relocations and persecution by the Burma Army in Shan State; and their continuing struggles to find acceptance in Thailand, either in gaining recognition as refugees, or in gaining access to any but the lowest paid employment.

The book also addresses the relevant key issues that concern the Shan refugees of Burma, the most shocking human rights abuses, the sex trade, and many other problems that they have in Thailand. Although one may not know Bernice Johnson, the book reveals a lot about her nature, which I feel is down to earth, but that she cares deeply for the welfare of each and every one of her young Shan students. She mentioned that the girls she taught were “no ordinary girls”, but one feels that Bernice is no ordinary person herself, devoting her life to work for the disadvantaged Shan.

A Finnish-German American, and brought up by a loving and wholesome family on a farm in Minnesota, Johnson knows the importance of being part of a loving family, and she has an understanding of the Shan country life, the villages where her students lived. With her valuable guidance and love, the students blossomed to become people with self esteem and beliefs in their talents and abilities.

The book also details Bernice’s travels to Burma’s main cities and to Shan State; she meets Burmese and Shans who live under the repressive regime that she has heard so much about from her students in Thailand; she sees the grinding poverty in which many ordinary people are forced to live because of a stagnating economy and an uncaring corrupt military ‘elite’.

She tells us about her visits around, Maymyo, Hsipaw, Yawnghwe, Mandalay and Yangon, and met the Burmese whom she got to know as kind hearted people who live in poverty, and she also discovered the cunningness of the Burma regime, especially in keeping the arrest of ten Shan leaders a secret, while she was in Hsipaw.

This is an honest and compassionate account of a woman who is open-minded, interested and perceptive about people, their way of life and experiences, no matter where she finds herself.

This is a book about people who face suffering and their fight to overcome the difficulties they face in life. It shows the warmth, helpfulness and inner strength of the people she meets.

Review by Feraya Nangmone

The Shan: Refugees Without a Camp

By Bernice Koehler Johnson

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