Escaping the Burmese military junta

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When we first meet master weaver Naw Moo Paw, we are immediately drawn to the handsome but shy boy sitting next to her. This is her 6-year old son, who accompanies her on her daily errands. He looks much like Naw Moo Paw, with strong cheekbones and a smile that spreads out to his whole face when he laughs.

Naw Moo Paw is one of WEAVE’s expert weavers, demonstrating for us her skill and agility using the traditional back-strap loom. It’s an old weaving method she learned in Karen State, Burma consisting of a strap that goes across the small of the back, with long pieces that attach to one’s feet. She expertly adds colorful new thread, never making a mistake in the intricate pattern.


Yet the sight of her charming family and her enjoyment of her home-based job is in stark contrast to Naw Moo Paw’s harrowing story of how she became a refugee living on the Thai-Burma border.

Describing her reasons for fleeing her village in Karen State, the 30 year old said, “the enemies shot at our village and bullets fell around our homes.” The Burmese military often took her husband at gunpoint to work as a porter, carrying weapons and supplies. Forced labor is a common human rights abuse in the country. He would be “gone for days”, she recalls. During these times, a pregnant Naw Moo Paw would have to take care of their home and find food herself, not knowing if her husband would return.

These examples of persecution inflicted by the Burmese army on ethnic peoples are only some in a long list of human rights violations. Burmese army units are known to move from village to village in ethnic states, terrorizing and killing people, burning villages down, stealing their money, food and land, raping women and jailing people without reason. People from ethnic groups inside Burma have lived in constant fear of these abuses for decades and are forced to flee, with no authority to turn to for help. Economic oppression is another tactic used by the military junta, such as the displacement of families from their lands, high taxation, and severe poverty, while the government spends almost 40% of its GDP on the military.

The last time Naw Moo Paw’s husband was forced to porter for military soldiers, they beat him. They realized the abuse would never end. Naw Moo Paw left for a refugee camp first, with her husband staying behind to take care of their property and join her later. She had no money to leave, but managed to get on a truck with other people fleeing.

The camp was far from home and for the first time in a long time, she felt safe. Yet she needed money to buy healthy food for her four children. Camp rations are very basic and supplies like fresh vegetables, fruit and meat are not included.

WEAVE’s Income Generation Project (IGP) has changed her family’s life. Weaving a diverse array of handicrafts that are marketed and sold through WEAVE’s shops, Naw Moo Paw has become a home-based entrepreneur. She can feed her family healthy options and afford school clothes and supplies for her sons. Her economic empowerment includes choosing her working hours to spend the time she needs to care for her family.

“If there was no WEAVE project I would have to grow vegetables for Thai villages,” she said, a job that would mean she’d have to leave the safety of camp and be vulnerable to exploitation of fair wages and face the threat of Thai authorities, who do not legally allow refugees to work. It’s not uncommon for day laborers to be checked for ID they don’t have and arrested.

Another benefit of IGP is the confidence and leadership skills she has gained. As a Quality Control leader, she enjoys teaching new artisans how to weave. She wants to uphold the high quality standards set for the project and encourages the artisans to do the same. She sees WEAVE customers as people who like unique items they can’t find elsewhere and wants to maintain the good reputation of the brand.

As for the future, “I want to leave (the camp) but I don’t know where we can go,” she explained. “Resettlement is difficult because I’m worried I can’t speak another language.”

In WEAVE’s livelihood project, she can focus on what she is able to do well, using skills that directly earn her valuable income safely. From here, she can look toward continuing this financial independence for herself and her family and hope for a brighter future for her smiling sons.

About WEAVE (Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment)

Founded in 1990, WEAVE is a non-profit organization that helps and supports the needs of marginalized women along the Thai-Burma border. WEAVE advances the status of women and children to become socially, economically and politically empowered. Through programs for education and capacity development, WEAVE’s goal is to elevate women and children from poverty and vulnerability, to self-sufficiency and hope.

Names and some other identifying details have been changed to protect identities.

(By Sarah Matsushita)