Thawda Aye Lei, "Cirrus"

The Burmese writer Thawda Aye Lei was a journalist and editor between 2005 and 2013. Having subsequently taken graduate degrees in Development Practice (in Australia) and in Gender, Human Rights and Conflict Studies (in The Netherlands), she continues to work in Myanmar as a social science researcher and writer. In 2017, she published her first novel, [Silky Moonshade]; since then three more novels and two story collections have appeared.



The following story was initially written by Aye Lei Thawda, a Burmese writer, journalist and NGO worker who in February of 2019 was invited to participate in a Border Project sponsored by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Myanmar.

Thawda describes this story as a sort of an artistic rendering of a case study, a combination of her work in journalism and fiction. Caught off-guard by this unusual genre, I asked her why she chose to deliver her story this way. She explained that when presented with charts and figures, research findings from the border do not seem to hold the public’s interest. For this reason, she sought a different approach.

The story addresses many conflicts, including the violent targeting of the Rohingya people. The most recent crisis impacting the Rohingya population has seen thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands displaced. Although the Rohingya have received international attention in recent years, many other ethnic minorities have also endured violence and cruelty as the result of conflicts along the border.  These realities demand immediate international attention, which is why Thawda and I sought to produce an English translation of the story together, during her residency in the IWP in the fall of 2019, despite my lack of Burmese.

I began with Thawda’s own translation of her story into English. Thawda asked that I help shape this draft, interested in seeking a larger audience for the piece.  I proceeded by asking questions of Thawda ranging from plot and word choice to her funding and geography. According to her responses to these questions, I edited the text, my primary motivation being ease of access to the text for an English-speaking audience.

This story opens with Thawda’s voice interviewing her subject at a bus station in Lweje, a trade town on the Myanmar-China border in the northeast of Myanmar, and proceeds with Maung Soe recounting the story of his life on the border.



What did I ask him again? “Aren’t you homesick? Don’t you want to go back home?”

Who doesn’t miss home? Living five hundred miles away, I can’t forget my home for even a day. Ammaa, my mother, is waiting there for me. I’m all she has in the world, and she’s all I have.  Still, I can’t go back. It seems that the bird with the broken wing will freeze on the ice before it reaches its nest.

When I first began my job as a truck driver on the way from Yangon to Muse1 there was a song that played over the radio in English, a song that went “Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four…”. At that time, the region was under curfew, and the clouds and the smoke of gunpowder swirled in the mountain range. It wasn’t easy to make a trip along this road. On the way, whether you wanted to or not, you were made to stop for a while before continuing your journey. When you resumed and the car tires started rolling up the mountain road, you had to be alert, like a bird eating banyan fruit must look out for hunters. I didn’t know what it meant, but I loved that song that played from the Made-in-China radio at the food stand where we would stop just before we made it halfway through the mountain range.

Although I didn’t understand it, the song moved me every time I heard it, the way it was sung softly and longingly: “Lord I’m five hundred miles from my home.” Back then there was another driver, Ko Thaung Aye, who was more educated than the rest of us.  Because he had passed the Matriculation exam in List B, he conducted himself as an officious person—a know-it-all. He lorded it over us like he was our master.  I asked him what the song meant, and he said it was about missing home, and that it was called “500 miles.”

What a coincidence, I thought. I found myself humming the melody whenever I had nothing else to think about. On the outside I was murmuring the words, but inside I was shouting them.  It was unbearable when, every now and then, Ammaa’s pitiful face would appear in my mind’s eye, although I wasn’t even 500 miles away from home then. “I’ve been worrying about you. Will you get arrested? Or caught up in the fighting? Is the truck in good repair? Will you catch malaria? When you left home, did you realize you were leaving me all alone like a fool? Betaa, my son, my dearest Maung Soe,” she said repeatedly, her eyes welling up with tears. It killed me. As soon as I stepped out of the house, I knew Ammaa was behind me in tears.  To her, every time I left could be the last time. But when I did come home to visit, Ammaa was always relieved—refreshed even, as though she had been resurrected.

Ammaa! Though she was fairly thin and petite, she was a bold woman and a daredevil, someone who could face everything life threw at her. Regarding her children, however, she was easily moved to tears. She was always worried, especially when she thought she might be left alone in the world.

Betaa and Betii, my son and my daughter, Ammaa’s body and soul. They should never be apart. Ammaa can only exist when they are together,” she said.

Ever since I was a teenager, I craved adventure. I always dreamed of leaving the nest to work in a far-away place. When Ammaa sensed I was going to move away from her, she became very sad. Of course she did—Ammaa built her life around my sister and me.  When Papa died, I was six and she was four. I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember Ammaa’s worn-out body, her head resting against the wall, weeping.

Though she is very thin now, Ammaa used to be cute and fit, small of frame, with glowing brown skin. After Papa died, my eldest aunt Khaalaa Gyi suggested that she and Ammaa open a food stand near Tarmwe Roundabout. They sold five or six homemade dishes, including fried chillies and Indian-style vegetable soup that made your mouth water. They opened the stand at 6 p.m. and sold food until 2 a.m. After closing the stand and cleaning up, Ammaa would leave for home around dawn as the boiled pea vendors began to arrive at their stands. The income from their stand was enough to send my sister and me to school.

Sometimes I think my insecurities made me unable to connect with the real world. No matter what hopes or dreams Ammaa had for me, I always wanted to resist her. There was nothing in particular that I wanted to rebel against or revolutionize. I just hated my schoolteacher and I hated my classmates who pretended to study hard to get attention. I hated the students who competed in the recitation of the Quar’an, and I hated the elders from the mosque who looked at me like I was a vagrant. Therefore, my footsteps toward the state school, and the Friday Prayers, and any crowded place at all became hesitant and less frequent. It was difficult to get myself to go to these places, so stepping outside the circle was easy.

I failed all my exams—ninth grade, tenth grade, and matriculation—countess times. When I was nearly twenty years old, I decided I was done with school. Ammaa must have sensed that this was coming. Kaa Kaa, my father’s brother, gave me a way out. He asked me, “Maung Soe, can you work a tiring job? Do you want to drive a truck?” I didn’t have to think about his offer, I just nodded my head quickly and hopped into the truck. Ammaa couldn’t stop me, so she left, praying, “Oh, Allah! Please take care of my son,” for that was all she could do.

Gradually, I spent more and more time away from home, and sometimes I lost touch with home entirely.  Now it’s been thirty years since I first left, and I haven’t visited in the last fifteen. I do miss home, I can’t lie. I really do. Not only in the summer, and the rainy season, and the winter, but also whenever I see mothers carrying their children, or feeding them, or waiting for their return from school at the bus stop—that’s when I miss Ammaa the most. Will she be waiting for my return on the balcony of our tiny dark apartment, like a pigeon in her hole? Imagining her like that breaks my heart.

My homesickness is improving now that I can call home every day. In the past, when telephones were very rare, I could only talk to Ammaa once a week, or when we had important matters to discuss. I learned the phrases by heart: “Ammaa, how are you?” “Take care of your health.” “Don’t worry about me!” “Everything is okay.” Over and over again. She responded with her own lines, saying “Betaa, is it peaceful there?” “Why don’t you come home?” “I am worried about you.”

It’s too far, Ammaa. But trust me. Your son will come back to you with his head held high. My secret ambitions are not a burden, they are the fuel that will send me into the air like a hot-air balloon. Your son will soar into the sky, and then, when he is able to skip on the clouds, he will come back to you. I’ve said so since that first day I drove the truck. But we must forget about the soaring clouds for now. I am thirsty at sea. I’m getting lost while walking. Flapping my wings in the cage. Though I see the barbed fishhook, I take the bait, hoping to get lucky.

You must know that there was no legal system out there on the border. No rules for retribution, no legal system to issue rulings. It was survival of the fittest—we had to make our own luck. As someone who has spent his life chasing prosperity, now I thirst for something greater. Now, what I want more than anything is justice. I would like to believe that the world will finally give me what I deserve to make up for all the obstacles I’ve had to face.


Arr Shaung. He went by Sai Lone, and Moe Myint, but we called him Arr Shaung. I didn’t know if he was Chinese or Shan or Bamar2,  because he spoke all three languages. He was a shrewd man. His skin was bronze, his eyes, narrow slits. Although he was five years younger than me, he was more experienced in the jade world.  Yes, he was slick.

Slick. I’ve dedicated half my life here in Lweje3 to find him. I’ve searched for him in every place within my reach, wherever my legs could carry me, wherever my eyes could see. Even the seemingly endless ocean has boundaries, visible to us in the waters’ shadows. Hoping to meet as different currents meet in the water, I have long been waiting.

Arr Shaung was like a sea otter—slippery, always escaping. He evades and deceives me to this very day. A few years ago, one of my friends from Kyanphone told me he saw a man around the city who looked like Arr Shaung. After hearing this, I told him to ask around and confirm his suspicion, and then I sharpened my sword, which had begun to rust on the wall. This time, I would be the one to issue the ruling.

But this is misleading. My dream was to build a fortune. I never thought I’d find myself so far away, so full of hatred, searching for an opportunity to exact my revenge.  When I think of how I became this man, I feel unsettled. It’s like somebody planned it. Just like the song, “Gypsy Cloud”, I am “the man in the story without a script.”

The years following 1990 were full of thrills and adventures. There was a conflict around here in 1994. Back then, the area was not very developed, not crowded with houses and buildings like it is today. It was just a village. The place where the rice mills now stand was a graveyard where shooting would break out between armed ethnic groups and the military. Conflicts were always breaking out on Muse Road. Back then, when the black market was still alive, the unspoken rules that governed our lives were too powerful to resist. Don’t talk about getting rich—many girls gave their lives in black market trades they carried out for the sake of their families. Fresh buds, they withered and fell to the ground. But we had no power to say anything, no right to stop and cry. We didn’t have time to be sad for anyone. We had to look the other way. Be silent when the sun goes down. Turn off the lights. These are the rules we had to follow.

After a decade, things were different. The trade was more sophisticated than before. By that point, I had been promoted to a crab delivery driver. The crabs I carried from Yangon had to be cleaned in Mandalay. When I was a truck driver, I was afraid that the trips would be delayed by the conflicts along the way or rough road conditions. I was especially afraid of the fighting. We could only guess when it would be okay to travel. The fighting was an endless dream, but we had to be patient. We had no right to wake the dreamers, so we had to wait for them to wake on their own.

Although we were patient, the crabs were not. If the temperature wasn’t just right, they would die in their boxes. China only wanted live crabs, so the loss was huge. We carried them in styrofoam boxes. The soft-shell crab market didn’t get popular until later; we only exported hard shell crabs. If we were two days late, the crabs would already be dead in their boxes. If one crab died, its flesh would rot, and all the other crabs in the box would die. Then we would have to replace that box with a new one. We had to be very careful. During that time, I also brought dried fish with me to Muse, hoping to sell it and make a small profit.  But it didn’t work. I could only sell about 80 or 90kg, but other delivery men could fill their trucks with the dried fish.  I earned just enough money to feed myself, except when I bought too much on credit and lost money.

Then, the “Gypsy Cloud” floated to another place. In search of peace, I drifted to a new, green land. By this time I had become an expert on car tires, so I got a job at the Hon Pan Company. I repaired dump truck tires there, at Zelal village near the Kyaukse district. The nature of the job was different than what I was accustomed to. There weren’t many opportunities to travel, but there were many things to learn. The cloud was gathering vapor, growing larger, gaining energy. One day, it would burst into a shimmering shower of silver rain.

That day arrived unexpectedly, without making a sound. Beyond Phakant and Sai Taung, there was a town with a large jade mine called Wai Kha. Wai Kha was a place where miners realized their dreams. Wai Kha gems were famous. They were called “the stones that were worth a nation,” or “the great escape.” The Triple-Eight company was handed over to Hon Pan company, and Hon Pan planned to erect a larger building in Wai Kha to accommodate the company’s expansion. In order to bring workers to Wai Kha, they chose the best employees from the Zelal Village site, and this lucky Maung Soe was selected as a commander on the front line.

It was no different in Wai Kha than it had been in Zelal Village—I just repaired tires. Knowing I was standing on buried treasure, however, I imagined that paradise was within my reach. As an employee, I had to nose about the mine to assess the condition of the area, and increasingly, I became more and more interested in the world of gemstones. How does that song go? “One day, if I find a precious stone, I’ll become a tycoon. If you run out of ideas, sell iron tiles… if you run out of rice, then become a tycoon!” One day, if you’re lucky, the unwashed stone will split into a million precious gems.

Maybe I was already in over my head. No matter how complicated the world got, I could always see things in a positive light. Whatever life had in store for me, I would get over it—face it, resist it, tolerate it, learn from it. I was not interested in the life of a miner cracking open stones with a diamond hammer, only to be paid a percentage of their value. What made my eyes shine brighter were the unbroken stones. There were many people whose lives shifted wildly between high and low places because of the fates these stones held in them, and their stories filled my ears.

Our masters also taught us. When you assess a raw jadeite, you have to look at the crystals—whether they are smooth or rough, few or many. You have to look at the outermost layer, which can tell you a lot about the texture of the stone. In order to predict its lustre, you have to look at the color of its surface. To know its density, you must look at its shape. No matter how hard you studied, you had to be careful. You could learn a lot by looking at the outside of the stone, but your prediction would almost never be perfect.

According to the fatalists, it was all a matter of luck. The jadeites were sold as plain, clay-colored stones. The outer layer was usually thick, and after washing it, you might know only a little more about the texture of the inside, whether or not it was good.

Sometimes it was like betting on a hand of cards or buying an illegal lottery ticket because an omen showed you the winning number. You couldn’t say whether the stone in your hand was high quality or not until it was cut open; only then could you see if its color was good. If we lost touch with the jade world for a while, or if our eyes were away from high quality stones for a long time, we could lose our sense for predicting their value. The jade world was truly risky.

But I was doing well. Actually, I was unstoppable. The very first raw stone I bought was a lucky one. These days it’s hard to find a truly good stone in a mountain of heaped earth, although you can find small stones for survival here and there. But it seemed easy to make money then. Now that I had found a lucky stone, I felt that the jade world favored me. I went in on the raw stone with three other men, and that lucky stone was the first profit we made in the jade trade. Some people gave up because the first stone they bought was low-quality, but we got a high-quality jadeite on our first try. I began to invest some money in the trade, borrowing money from Ammaa here and there. Since I was turning a profit, my return home gained plausibility.

The stakes got higher and higher. People warned me, “Don’t eat greedily, or bones will get stuck in your throat.” I know they meant well, but my way of life depended on taking risks. That’s how I came to know Arr Shaung. Despite being a broker, he didn’t talk much. If he said a word, he meant it. The way he worked, and even the way he moved was careful. He had good intentions, or so I thought.

We bought the raw stones from him. Sometimes we made large profits, sometimes we didn’t, but we never lost our money. Arr Shaung was not only our broker, he was our mastermind. Even if the stone was as good as sold, he always told us when, where and how we should sell it. His advice never led us astray, and that led us to trust him a great deal.

There’s a saying I’ve heard before, a saying that goes, “Sacrifice a little, gain a lot.” This whole time, Arr Shaung had been watching us and scheming. There was an infinite amount to be learned about the jade world, but we acted as if we knew everything. Knowing that we were naive, he began to develop a plan. This time, I wouldn’t be the only one to suffer a loss. Outside our group of three, an additional three were in on the deal.

You can’t pull up on the reigns of a horse that is galloping at break-neck speed. We realized too late that we were charging not toward success, but toward tragedy.


A fake stone.

Arr Shaung introduced us to the Chinese sellers. We examined the raw stone until we were satisfied with its quality. But after it was cut into, all I heard was, “a fake stone.” It was like lightning struck the ground at my side. This had been a huge investment. Massive. I had withdrawn 200 lakhs4, the money I had saved to spend on an apartment for Ammaa, and invested it all.

We just didn’t know enough, and there was no technology at that time capable of determining whether the stones were real or fake. There were ways of falsifying the color and texture, and sellers would glue the stone back together to resell if it turned out to be of poor quality. If it didn’t look right, they could stick it back together with plaster, or drill a core out of a jade boulder and insert it into the stone.  They could also insert pieces of glass and mirrors, or dye a bad stone with the gallbladder of a peacock to make the color brighter. We were cocky and caught unawares.

After it was cut, greasy green liquid trickled out. There was nothing else inside. The fake stone shattered my pride, and I sobbed bitterly. How could I go back to Ammaa now? How could I face her? How dare he do this to me! My faith, my hope, my heart… all were shattered.

I wouldn’t forgive him. How could I? We were sold the stone along the border, near Zhangfeng, so I searched for Arr Shaung there. This was also very stupid. If he knew I was looking for him there, he would laugh out loud. The thief who got away with a huge bag of money wouldn’t stick around the scene of the crime, especially if there were many Burmese people there. After some time, the other members of the group, who believed in fate, went back to where they had come from, hanging their heads. As for me, I couldn’t go back home. I had to get justice. If I could only take care of him with my own two hands, I could resolve my secret sense of shame and inadequacy
So I decided to stay in Ruili5. Working as a waiter for a tea shop near the Ruili jade mine, I waited for him, hoping he would make himself seen, and that one day soon he would head back to the jade mine to look for his next victim. It took over two years. I waited for him like the garuda waits for the serpent to emerge from the sea, but he never once showed his face in all that time. So, I left and travelled to Lweje to find a job.


I cannot stay here, I am just a raincloud. My role in the play of life is wrong.
How can I survive?

I knew I had made the wrong choice, but I didn’t want to admit it. I left my home like a proud red ant, but now I had to return to it by crawling in from the cracks in the walls.  Just like the song, I was an unsteady raincloud, traveling from place to place. Now I was literally 500 miles away from home. Searching for greener pastures, I found only drought. Please forgive me, Ammaa.

After war broke out in Laiza7, the town closed its borders, and Lweje became more crowded since the border was open there. When I first arrived, I worked loading cargo onto ships. Making money was easy then. Each time you drove a truckload of goods from Lai Ying, the town on the Chinese side of the border, to the gate at Kyanphone in Burma, you could earn 3000 lakhs, and there were days when we earned nearly a million. Of course, that wasn’t always the case. We were met with resistance. Even though Lweje didn’t have a gate, there were people who shouted nasty things at us, as if carrying things from one place to another was illegal. And the work wasn’t satisfying, so when this bus station announced a vacancy, I took a job here as a clerk. Ten years have passed, and now I’m in charge of this place.

Some people here, myself included, come from Lower Burma, others come from the north, and there are also Shan, Kachin, and Chinese employees. People used to assume they were escaped criminals. It was dangerous to work as the manager of a bus station on the border, outside the reach of the law, where people from different places, cultures, and societies were living side by side. I had to be careful I wouldn’t be preyed upon again.

I didn’t want to become prey, but I didn’t want to hunt, either—except when it came to Arr Shaung. The resentment I felt for him never diminished, not by an ounce. I was going on with my life, all the while waiting for the perfect opportunity. I couldn’t say how long I would stay here, when I would move, or to where, because I didn’t know myself.

But I did know one thing. From among the sermons of Buddha that blared from the cars at the Lweje gate, I remembered one, recited by Abbot Nanda Marla Biwunntha. It had to do with one’s occupation. He said we should earn our living in a right way, not by murder or adultery. I kept this firmly in my mind. Now I am nearly fifty years old.  Although I desired wealth, I worked simple jobs and got cheated instead. At least I had a clear conscience, and I knew that no one had suffered because of me. I never gave up hope. After becoming a manager, I began to read more. If there was any free time in the afternoon and customers weren’t asking me about the bus schedule, I picked up a book. What kind of book? Would you laugh if I told you I was reading self-help books at this age?

As a manager, ethical matters were complicated for me. Everyone has a different life and a different story. For example, some Burmese women get married to Chinese citizens from the other side of the border. Sometimes they want to bring their husbands to their villages which are in an area that is restricted for Chinese citizens. Whenever we crossed into Bahmo, Phakant, or other jade towns, we had to inform the guards at the border gates that the Chinese men were with us. We checked the passengers’ personal information and ID cards in advance to avoid delays, but every now and then a passenger would ask us to stop near the woods before the gate, or to take a shortcut to avoid it all together. That gave me a headache. I knew not to make the mistake of trusting them. I had learned, since I had been cheated many times, that I had to refuse their requests without feeling too bad about it.

There were heaps of sad stories like this to distract me from my own troubles. I was unhappy, but I was okay. My feelings had been numbed. I found myself mumbling, “It’s just a crazy world,” and swallowing the feelings I was choking on.

As a manager here, I have lived through three unforgettable stories. The first of which was when I helped connect The National Human Trafficking Police, after they had received word of a trafficking ring in Yangon, with the police in Lai Ying. Seven girls had been taken by a group of gay male beauticians who promised them a job at a beauty salon in China. When they arrived here, they were sold as wives to Chinese men. When it came to human trafficking, the police from both sides of the border worked together. When The National Human Trafficking Police were ready to arrest the traffickers, we drove them to meet with the police in Lai Ying. If I remember correctly, once the men were arrested, I met four of the women who had been abducted. One of them was sobbing and kept asking where her sister was. She said “I won’t go home without my sister. My mother let us go, even though she didn’t want to. We had to take a risk because we had no money. Even though she’s dead now, she wouldn’t want us to go and risk our lives somewhere else.” I thought of Ammaa immediately, and felt exhausted imagining her in that mother’s place. It’s different because I’m a man—still, I sympathized with Ammaa who always worried that I would be arrested at work when there was conflict.

The other two stories have to do with being cheated. As I’ve said already, I was the one who got lost while walking—the man in the story without a script. When I became a manager here, I was still too trusting of other people. One of my regular customers tricked me. At first, he sent goods worth only four or five lakhs on our busses. He said the receiver would pay for the goods and the delivery charges, and he did. We had to pay the delivery fees at the checkpoints initially, but he reimbursed us for everything when he sold the goods for a profit. So, I trusted him. Gradually, the value of the goods he sent rose to thirty lakhs. That’s when I began to doubt him. When I called the receiver, he said “I’ll pay—just send them!” So, I did.

We made the delivery payment at the gate for the full value of thirty lakh, but when the goods arrived, there was no one to pick them up. Neither the sender nor the receiver answered my phone calls. When we opened the boxes, there was only styrofoam. Those thirty lakh came out of my pocket.

Life had bruised and battered me. The broken wing could not be made to fly again. I used to be a delinquent, but I was never dishonest. Though I was not successful, I would not be a cheater. For this reason, I tried to pay off all my debts. It is said that good and bad luck come in turn, that good can come from a bad situation. I escaped the bad luck of this third unforgettable incident by only a narrow margin.

Our service also delivered motorbikes. Around that time, police from the anti-narcotic task force warned us about people transporting drugs across border points. We didn’t take our jobs lightly. Before preparing the goods for transport—cosmetics, clothing, handbags, food—I inspected them thoroughly. Whoever had the drugs in their possession was the criminal, and I didn’t want to be convicted of another man’s crime. One day, two Chinese men asked us to deliver a motorbike—just a motorbike—to Phakant. I had concentrated all my attention on the packed boxes of food and cosmetics; I hadn’t imagined that the Archangel of evil could be hidden in plain sight, tucked away inside a bare motorbike. That was my own fault.

On the way up to Sein Lone Mountain at twilight, the rope securing the motorbike to the top of the delivery van broke and the bike fell to the ground. When the delivery men went to pick it up, they noticed the drugs hidden underneath the seat. Luckily, they saw them just before reaching the inspection gate. As soon as the driver informed me of the situation, I passed the information along to the police. Even though they trusted me, I had a lot of explaining to do. In the end, God helped his naïve son, but I never felt safe after that. How could I? I was poor and uneducated, and haunted by a question: what will it be next time?

I missed home. I missed Ammaa. The competition between my homesickness and my hatred for Arr Shaung was exhausting.


I heard that Arr Shaung was in Zangfeng. I didn’t know where he was staying. He appeared, all of a sudden, and disappeared just as quickly. Should I leave solid ground behind, and set out on my raft to follow him? Though my hatred was strong as ever, I had to rethink my plans.

And then I made up my mind. I would search for Arr Shaung. We would resolve our conflict face to face. The sword I had sharpened hung there on my wall, challenging me. I had to satiate its desire.

The day before I set out for Kyan Phone, I received a call from Ammaa. It had been a long time since we had last spoken, and even when we did talk our conversations were brief. Actually, I was usually the one to call—Ammaa didn’t know when I was at work, and she didn’t want to interrupt me. In this way, Ammaa always understood me. On my way out the door, rucksack on my back, I received a phone call.  Worried, I answered.

Ammaa’s voice sounded normal enough, but she seemed tired. With her usual consideration for my time, Ammaa got straight to the point.

“Maung Soe. If you are safe in the border area, will you let me stay with you?”

Ammaa was always worried about me, because she thought the border was unsafe. You can imagine my surprise when she asked if she could stay with me.

“Why, Ammaa?”

“Don’t you hear what they’re saying, Betaa? Your little sister told me that people from Buthidaung8 are running away. Will they attack Yangon, too? Will we be safe if I come to stay with you? I feel so scared when I think about this, but if the border areas are all the same—if we’re not safe, and we might die soon anyway, I told your sister that I don’t want to live so far from my son.”

I calmed her down and told her not to worry so much. She believed whatever my sister told her, whatever she read in the news, even though she didn’t know anything.  Ammaa really depends on me.

“This is not a country in anarchy, Ammaa.”

 “Sure,” she replied, after a pause.

After that, I thought of the words I had just spoken. I lost myself in my thoughts for a long time, until I forgot about Arr Shaung.  




1 - Muse is a town located near the Myanmar-China border in the Shan State. In the 1990s the town was under the control of armed ethnic groups. Peace was restored for almost two decades following the 1990s, but the conflicts resumed in August 2019.
2 - Shan and Bamar are ethnic groups in Myanmar.
3 - A border town on the north-east of Myanmar, near China
4 - Approximately 20,000 USD
5 - A Chinese town at the end of Muse Road, on the eastern border of Myanmar, across the Shweli river, which here separates Myanmar and China.
6 - Lyrics from “Gypsy Cloud”
Another city on the border in Myanmar, north of Lweje.
A border town near Bangladesh where most of the Muslim population, or “Rohingya,” live.

Kaylee Lockett is currently an MFA candidate in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa, where she translates Arabic poetry and edits Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. She received her BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Bard College, and has also studied Arabic at Al-Quds Bard and the American University of Beirut.