Life Story for the Special Initiative “Living the Coup: Collective Diary of Daily Life in Myanmar” by SEA Junction and Partners.
|The Dream I Left Behind
|July 11, 2021
The Dream I’ve Left Behind
That was the sound of the engine being attached to the carriages of the train on the platform of Mandalay Central Railway Station. Once the locomotive was connected, passengers loaded their luggage, escorted and said goodbye to their relatives as travelers would normally do before they embark on their journey. A man in a blue and white uniform started the engine and came down from the engine room to inspect the air brake hoses. I am the train operator and I am doing my routine check before departing the station. It is one of my habits to carefully inspect even the smallest details to ensure the safety of the passengers on board. The fuel, water, and air pressure of the locomotive had already been inspected and the entry/exit record had been filled out and signed at the locomotive office. By the time the inspection was complete, the train was ready to depart. When the train conductor stationed at the last carriage gave the signal that everything was in order, the train operator sounded a long horn and started the journey towards the mountains in the far northern part of Myanmar.
The train operator drove the train carefully. I checked that the traffic light was green as the train passed the 35th Street crossing and honked at the pedestrians to warn them of the approaching train. Although the other party is usually in the wrong whenever there is an accident along the train tracks, the biggest responsibility for a train operator is to avoid harming anyone while on the job. It is a huge responsibility for me not only because I am a young train operator who still had a big future ahead, but also because I did not wish to bring harm to anyone while I am operating the train.
I grew up living in railway housing as a son of a railway worker. My parents have three daughters and two sons. My brother is the oldest and I am the youngest one in the family. My father was the sole breadwinner in the family so they had to make ends meet with little money they had. My older brother took odd jobs outside since he had no interest in working in the railway sector whereas I have been interested in becoming a train operator so I joined the railway sector right after I graduated from university. I also didn’t know what kind of jobs were available to a fresh graduate like me since I had never taken an outside job before. The railway sector warmly welcomed me and hired me as a carriage maintenance technician. The job was physically demanding and I often had to work late till night. However, I never give up on my dream of becoming a train operator and so I worked hard. I finally got a chance to put on my new white train operator uniform after I attended several courses, passed the exams and made sure to excel at the tasks I was previously assigned.
Some of my friends would tell me that I was lucky to become a train operator at a such young age (35years old) and I would accept those compliments with a smile. One thing I didn’t explain to them was that even though luck was a big part of it, I had to face many struggles and challenges to get to this position (train operator). Working with trains is my hobby and I did my best at my job. I was not even envious when I saw my friends from high school owning cars and living in big houses. I felt content working as a train operator and living with my family in a house with rusted tin roofs.
I cut off from my memories of being a train operator in the past when a motorcyclist suddenly swerved in front of me and menacingly crossed the train tracks near the Amarapura Station before an approaching train. From my Oway taxi, I quickly blasted the horn and gave a loud warning.
I cursed under my breath at the car was going slowly in front of me and I quickly overtook it when I reached an open road. It had not been long for me to realize that driving a three-wheel bike taxi called mini Oway in Mandalay was not an easy task. Nothing good can come out if I hit a car or a motorcycle. I will have to pay for damages if I hit a motorcycle and then my life could be in danger if I hit a car. Therefore, I tried my best to look out for reckless cars and motorcycles when I searched for passengers on the road. I turned into an alley on Theik Pan Road and saw a couple waiting with luggages so I stopped and asked.
“Hello, Bro. Did you happen to call a mini Oway?”
“Are you Ko ……?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Oh, alright. It is us who ordered a ride to the highway bus station.”
Since no further confirmation was necessary, I got off my three-wheel bike and loaded the luggage onto the vehicle.
“Please, Bro. I will carry it myself since there are longyis in there” the woman insisted.
“It is alright. I can do it.”
The passengers were seated, the luggage was loaded and the mini Oway was back onto the road. They headed for the highway bus station together with other vehicles going in the same direction.
“We will get to a new day after a dark night.”
The song played from a phone placed on a stand next to the steering wheel. I couldn’t answer the phone right away since the call came in while I was driving back from the highway bus station after dropping off the passengers. I finally answered the phone after he got on 78th road.
“Hello Ko….. Can you please pick us up at Mandalar Thiri Highway Bus Station around 5 am tomorrow morning? I contacted you after I saw your Mini Oway taxi listing on Facebook. Please let me know if you are available.”
“Yes, of course. I will come and wait for you tomorrow morning. Please just call this number when your bus arrives at the station.”
Since I already got a passenger for tomorrow, I took off with relief and headed back to my home since it is almost lunchtime.
Finding passengers at a time like this was difficult even for experienced drivers so it goes without saying that it’s a lot more difficult for a newcomer like me who is just starting out in this business. My close friends tried to support me by ordering a ride from me but they would find themselves in an uncomfortable position seeing me carry their luggage and belongings. I tried not to overthink and did what’s expected of him as a mini Oway driver. I have been trying to get used to my new life and he’s slowly coming to terms with the fact that he’s no longer a train operator that gets to drive trains with thousands of horsepower. I now drive a mini Oway and my priority is to take my passengers to places they wish to go without causing any convenience.
At the beginning of February 2021, I found myself overwhelmed, shocked and left in a state of fear and despair just like everyone else did. I kept asking myself what I could do for my country. On 8th February, I decided to participate in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) along with other civilians and civil servants who were working together to disrupt and dismantle all governing mechanisms.
My friends said “Think about it, my friend. You are still too young to let go of the position and the job that you have and you will definitely see a lot of opportunities for your future in the railway sector. Don’t make hasty decisions. Just wait and see first.” I wasn’t sure if my friends and colleagues were genuinely concerned or warning or propaganda. I couldn’t care less about they told me. I was only thinking about participating in Mya Taung strike and other strikes led by railway workers. There were several times I came close to getting arrested or shot by the security forces at these protests. After the military started cracking down on the protesters, I worked very hard to help and provide for people like me who participated in the movement. As time went by, I heard the news some people quit the movement and went back to their previous jobs. Some people couldn’t give up their power and positions. Soon I realized that I also needed a job to make a living so I used all of my savings to buy a second-hand mini Oway.
I’m not going to stop participating in CDM just because of not earning as much as before. I will continue to work hard and provide for my family. However, I will never work under the military junta’s rule no matter how exhausted I am.
“Yayyy! Dad’s home!”. My son and daughter ran towards me as soon as I stopped the mini Oway in front of a house built on a plot that belongs to the Railways Department. I didn’t know how train operators in other countries live but my place was just a small shanty house with rusted roofs. I felt completely happy living in this small house with my wife and children.
“Just a moment, my son. Take your sister. I need to wash since I just came back from work.”
My children ran toward me but I didn’t dare to hug them right away. We had to be careful since we were in the middle of a pandemic. I threw away the mask into the bin and washed my hands before I sat down at the dining table.
A family meal with meat, vegetables, soup and nga pi (fish paste) was such an oasis for us. I got hungry just looking at the dishes that my wife prepared.
“This is for you. This is for my son and this is for my little daughter.”
I took two mouthfuls of rice and meat as soon as my wife put a piece of meat on my plate. I then looked around the table and saw my children eating their meals. My wife was also looking around the table and their eyes met unexpectedly. They paused for a moment and continued their lunch. I have been together with my wife for a decade and I believed she would understand what I wanted to say through the look that we exchanged.
“Thank you for always understanding and supporting my decisions no matter what. The food on our table may not be as plentiful as before, but we can still eat it with pride. I make a clean living and this food is not earned with the tears and blood of the people so you and the kids can eat with a clean conscience. let’s enjoy this lunch and keep ourselves strong to fight this pandemic and coup.”
Even though my wife probably didn’t understand everything I said, I felt that she understood at least that our lunch was more delicious and valuable than that of those who do not make an honest living like we do.
I believe that I will be able to put on my favourite uniform again in the near future.
I will go back to work as a train operator only when Amay Su (Aung San Su Kyi) comes back.
This story is first published on the art4cdm Facebook page here . art4cdm is an online community that provides a system of care and a safe space for civil servants from Myanmar who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement. Their information could be found on WordPress here and also be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube.
“Living the Coup: Collective Diary of Daily Life in Myanmar” is a special initiative of SEA Junction in collaboration with Asia Justice Rights (AJAR) to document how people are living in present-day Myanmar and their coping with daily security, economic and health challenges. We are asking for short stories in the form of written, photo essays or art illustration, in Burmese Language (to be later translated into English) or in English. For more background and other stories click here.
SEA Junction, established under the Thai non-profit organization Foundation for Southeast Asia Studies (ForSEA), aims to foster understanding and appreciation of Southeast Asia in all its socio-cultural dimensions- from arts and lifestyles to economy and development. Conveniently located at Room 408 of the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center or BACC (across MBK, BTS National Stadium), SEA Junction facilitates public access to knowledge resources and exchanges among students, practitioners and Southeast Asia lovers. For more information see www.seajunction.org, join the Facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/1693058870976440/ and follow us on twitter and Instagram @seajunction
Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR)
AJAR is a non-profit organization, based in Jakarta, Indonesia, whose aim is to contribute to the strengthening of human rights and the alleviation of entrenched impunity in the Asia-Pacific region. Its work focuses on countries involved in transition from a context of mass human rights violations to democracy, where it strives to build cultures based on accountability, justice and a willingness to learn from the root causes of human rights violations to help prevent the recurrence of state-sanctioned human rights violations. For more information, see https://asia-ajar.org.