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Interview with Robert Zan

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Robert Zan is the son of Mahn Ba Zan who was a prominent leader in the Karen struggle for independence. In turn Robert Zan was a leader in Karen struggles for independence. He is the author of a concise history "Mahn Ba Zan & The Karen Revolution", published in 1993. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: Early memories of Burmese atrocities against the Karen - family - his father Mahn Ba Zan founder of Karen National Defense Organization and leader of the Karen resistance - becoming a solider - fighting

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Asian American & Pacific Islander
Oral History Project
Narrator: Mahn Robert Ba Zan Interviewer: David Zander

MAHN ROBERT BA ZAN
Narrator

DAVID ZANDER
Interviewer

Cover design: Kim Jackson Copyright © 2012 by Minnesota Historical Society All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy and recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Oral History Office, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul, Minnesota 55102.

THE MINNESOTA ASIAN COMMUNITIES ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
The Asian population of Minnesota has grown dramatically since 1980, and in particular during the period from 1990 to the present. The Asian community is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, and is particularly noteworthy because its growth has been spread across such a wide spectrum of ethnic groups. The Minnesota Historical Society and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans formed a partnership to create a series of projects of oral history interviews with Asian community leaders. The projects are intended to help chronicle the history, successes, challenges, and contributions of this diverse and highly important group of Minnesotans. During the past twenty years the Minnesota Historical Society has successfully worked with many immigrant communities in the state to ensure that the stories of their arrival, settlement, and adjustment to life in Minnesota becomes part of the historical record. While the Society has worked with the Asian Indian, Tibetan, Cambodian and Hmong communities in the recent past, the current project includes interviews with members of the Vietnamese, Filipino, Lao and Korean communities, with more planned for the future. These new projects have created an expanded record that that better represents the Asian community and its importance to the state. The project could not have succeeded without the efforts of a remarkable group of advisors who helped frame the topics for discussion, and the narrators who shared their inspiring stories in each interview. We are deeply grateful for their interest and their commitment to the cause of history.

James E. Fogerty Minnesota Historical Society

Kao Ly Ilean Her Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans

 

Introduction

The Karen are an ethnic minority group in Burma and Thailand. In Southern Burma, in Kawthoolei state, the Karen have been involved in a struggle for independence since the end of World War II. The Karen villages continue to suffer frequent attacks and persecution from Burma’s ruling military junta. Many Karen fled to safety across the eastern border into Thailand. Since 2000 Karen have been arriving in Minnesota. There are now over six thousand living in Minnesota. They are among the most recent refugees resettling in Minnesota.

 

Robert in 2008 at Kawthoolei.

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Robert as a young man in Rangoon, Burma, 1958.

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Robert and his wife Nan Mya Mya Htway.

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Robert with the 6th brigade, KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army], 1986.

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Robert in 1990 with the 12th battalion, KNLA.

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Robert when he was with the 4th brigade commanding the 12th battalian, KNLA, 1990.

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Robert with a Karen made rocket, February, 1997.

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Robert speaking during the Karen New Year at First Baptist Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2001.

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Robert and his wife Nan, September, 2000.

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Robert with his wife Nan and daughters: Mu Mu Ba Zan (middle) and Wah Wah Ba Zan (right).

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From left to right: Eh Thweet, David Zander, Robert Zan, Ahmay Ya, and Jeanna Bauer. November 5, 2011.

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THE INTERVIEW
 

   

Mahn Robert Ba Zan Narrator David Zander Interviewer Jeanna Bauer Assistant Interviewer Eh Thweet Assisting with recording equipment Ahmay Ya Assistant Interpreter November 5, 2011 & January 12, 2012 Robert Zan’s Home Saint Paul, Minnesota Robert Zan David Zander Jeanna Bauer -RZ -DZ -JB

Robert Zan is the son of Mahn Ba Zan who was a prominent leader in the Karen struggle for independence. In turn Robert Zan was a leader in Karen struggles for independence. He is the author of a concise history Mahn Ba Zan & The Karen Revolution, published in 1993. DZ: It is Saturday, November 5, 2011, in Robert Zan‟s house in Saint Paul. And we are going to get Robert‟s story. First of all, Robert, please give me your names and tell me when you were born and where. RZ: My mom and dad call me Robert Zan. And when I became a citizen, I changed my English name to my Karen name, Mahn. I was born in Rangoon in 1941, November, 27. I will be seventy this November, 2011. DZ: What are your first memories of when you were a boy? What do you remember? RZ: When I was maybe eight or seven or eight years old, we lived in Irrawaddy at a town called Maubin. And then when we came back from Rangoon, on the way, there‟s a hleekasa, a type of wooden boat. My mother was hit on the head by a bullet, and she was unconscious. And then we arrived back in Maubin. My mother was sent to hospital and then sent to Rangoon. But we had to stay with our grand mom and dad. And then later we had to leave our town. Maubin was burned. We went to Sitchaung village, a Karen village. At that time, Burmese and Karen were fighting, and they committed violence. Burmese Karen... Burmese killed Karen and Karen killed
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Burmese. And Burmese burned Karen villages and Karen burned Burmese villages. We had to escape... We fled to the other side of the river and lived in a small house. My father is a Karen leader. In the morning I saw the corpses... Flowing from the river, a lot of people... Dead bodies. Women and men and children. And our houses were burned. We saw the flames. And I said, “Why did they burn our houses?” I feel bad. And then my dad led the revolution, the Karen National Union – the KNU, fighting, you know, he was fighting. There was a battle that lasted three months. Karen occupied the town of Insein for 111 days. One hundred and eleven day‟s defense. Then the Burmese made a ceasefire with KNU, but the enemy used this ceasefire time to get ammunition from India. They got guns, ammunitions, and arms from India. Then they recruited their soldiers to fight Karen. And we have no reinforcements, we ran out of ammunition, so Karen troops retreated from Insein. DZ: When you saw the bodies in the river and the flames, how old were you? RZ: I was born in 1941 and then 1948, 1949, I think I was eight years old. DZ: Yes. Now let‟s look at your family. Your father, I know, was a very important man in Karen history. You mentioned your mother. How many brothers and sisters did you have? RZ: I had three brothers and five sisters. My youngest brother (Htoo Lwee) was killed in action, in the fighting. And then my brother, Baldwin Zan, he was also an officer of the KNDO [Karen National Defense Organization], 7th battalion. He died. And then living here in Saint Paul are my two sisters Connie Zan and Kathy Zan. And I have one sister Nan Nwe Zan living in Norway. And one sister died of a gun accident. So we were eight siblings, you know. Chaw Chaw Sein Zan is living in Arakan State in Burma and Poe Po Zan died. DZ: Eight siblings. So where are you in that order? RZ: I am the oldest. We were all together ten of us, but my oldest sister died at the age of two and a half, two years old. And two died and we were left eight... Eight siblings, and then now, ah... Maybe one, two, three, five. There are five left. DZ: Tell me your father‟s name and if you could spell it for the interview. RZ: Yes... I‟ll give you the biography of my father. I wrote a book about his life. My father‟s name is Mahn Ba Zan. DZ: And your mother‟s name? RZ: My mother is Ghe Kyi Kyi. DZ: Okay. RZ: Paw Kwa is a man and Paw Mo is female.
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DZ: Excellent. Tell me about your house... When you were very small. Was it old style traditional Karen? Was it brick? What kind of house was it? RZ: Oh, it was a wooden house. A wooden house and then, you know, an aluminum roof. They‟re all big houses, you know. It was a big house with our compound and then, you know, mango trees. A lot of trees. And then they burned it down and they cut down all trees. Cleared everything. DZ: They meaning the Burmese RZ: Yes, yes, I mean Burmese at that time. DZ: So the Burmese... Cut everything down. RZ: Yes. DZ: Everything you had for food. RZ: Yes. Yes. Even in 1949. DZ: Let‟s jump ahead for a moment. When did you come to America? RZ: In 2000. On August 3rd I arrived in Saint Paul. DZ: Okay. Good. Got that. We‟ll come back and finish your story. So tell me about when you were ten... Tell me about how you got involved with KNU... What happened in your life? RZ: My dad is the founder of KNDO. Ah, KNU and KNDO. He was on the Central Committee of KNU and also in charge of KNDO. KNDO means Karen National Defense Organization. One of the armed wings of KNU. And then he was general of the KNU and KNDO. And also on the KNU Central Committee. DZ: Central Committee. RZ: He was a Central Committee member, yes. RZ: And he became President of KNU. DZ: Yes. DZ: Where is KNU headquarters now? Is it in Thailand or is it in Karen territory in Burma? RZ: It is in the liberated area. Because we don‟t have a permanent place. We have a moving headquarters now. Because we don‟t want the enemy to know where our headquarters is located.
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DZ: When you were a boy, did you see your father every day or was he away fighting? RZ: No. [Chuckles] No, no (not very often). A month in a year. He moved and they retreated from front line fighting, and he was the president of KNU. At that time, we had over twenty KNU Central Committee members when revolution broke out, but only five Central Committee in the fighting. And they shared... they shared their duty. In the Irrawaddy delta. So they shared their duty. So... My dad organized the people that formed the Karen forces to fight against the Burmese army in the Irrawaddy delta. DZ: When you were a boy. Was there school? Did you get schooling? RZ: Okay. I had a variety of schools, a lot of different kinds of school. So at that time, the KNU headquarters were at Irrawaddy, and then they set up a school and I lived there. I attended school. Then the enemy attacked, and we moved. To a village, another village, and stayed there. And after two months, three months, we left there and we have to go to school but only in the monastery. This was the only [Chuckles] Buddhist monastery that I attended. I attended not less than ten schools, because we had to move. DZ: Ten schools? RZ: Yes. Different schools, you know. DZ: Ten schools in what period of time? RZ: Maybe... 1950 to 1955 or 1957. DZ: So between 1949 and 1957. You had at least ten different schools and a monastery school RZ: Yes. DZ: In the schools, who were the teachers? Were they Karen? RZ: In the Karen school are Karen teachers and at the monastery is a Burmese monk. Because my mom wanted me to get a good education I went together with Burmese. Then she asked me to go to monastery. [Chuckles] So I went there. DZ: When did you start to become a soldier? RZ: From 1958. Before I became a soldier, I was assigned in Rangoon as the organizer of the student movement, the Rangoon Student Union. Then... My dad called me to attend the first political military training in 1963. Before I went to training, I studied high school in Rangoon. I finished high school in Rangoon. Then... Before I finished high school, my dad called me to stay at Karen school in Karen State. Then I attended high school and I finished high school there. And my dad asked me to come to Rangoon. He asked me to go to college. When I came back to
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Rangoon, I worked on my political movement... And the enemy knows my student movement, and so they tried to arrest me. And then when I go and attend the political military training at KNU headquarters, my dad assigned me in the underground movement in Rangoon as the youth and student in charge. So when the enemy attacked my dad‟s headquarters, my dad sent a runner (messenger) to tell us to go underground. And warn us. DZ: So then the Burmese knew… They knew about you. RZ: Yes. So I moved from Rangoon to the Irrawaddy. DZ: Yes. RZ: And then I joined the revolution, the armed revolution in 1964. DZ: Okay. Let me just backtrack... When you left Rangoon. You went to a high school in the village. What was the name of the school? RZ: It was a KNU high school. KNU high school at Papun district. DZ: So, alright, we‟re at 1964. And things are getting. Pretty bad. The Burmese know about your father, and about you. So you are starting to be in danger, I should imagine. RZ: Yes. They want... They know of my movement in the underground. So my dad sent his runner... And let me go to join the revolution. DZ: How old were you in 1964? RZ: In 1964 I was twenty-three. [Chuckles] DZ: Oh, I see. You‟re twenty-three. RZ: [Laughter] DZ: So you had finished high school. RZ: Yes. DZ: And I know, Robert, you told me you had fought many, many, many years in Burma. So tell us a little bit... 1964, 1970s, 1980s, what was happening? RZ: Okay. When I joined the revolution in 1954, my dad sent a letter to... You know, the KPLA. At that time, it is KNLA... now it‟s KNLA [Karen National Liberation Army], at that time it‟s KPLA. Karen People Liberation Army. Number Two Battalion, I was assigned there. When I joined there I was, you know, a private soldier. [Chuckles] Then in two years I became a political commissar. Political… And my duty was to organize the people. Also I was fighting. I had two
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duties. One is fighting and another is organizing the people and organizing the army. And also organize the Burmese Army. So political work, you know. I was a political commissar, that being political work. Then 1964 to 1969... I worked in the Irrawaddy delta. Two thirds of the Karen people live in the Irrawaddy delta. JB: Irrawaddy Division? RZ: Division, yes. The Karen State in Burma. Now the Karen State is in the Irrawaddy Division. But at that time we Karen demand the state in the Irrawaddy Division. And then, at that time, from 1964 to 1969, I fight and work at the Irrawaddy Division. Then my dad called me to East Kawthoolei, at that time headquarters was in East Kawthoolei. JB: Do you want to say what Kawthoolei means? Do you want to say what it means on the tape recorder? RZ: Yes, yes. Kawthoolei means „land without evil‟. JB: Land without evil is a pure land for the Karen people. RZ: No drugs taken... [Chuckles] DZ: So this becomes like a slogan. Kawthoolei. RZ: Yes, yes. And then from 1969 to 1997, I was with different brigades, Number seven brigade, number four brigade, fifth brigade. And then I go around and fight the enemy until 1997. DZ: Until 1997. RZ: 1997. Thirty-two years I had fighting. And I was wounded once. DZ: You were wounded. RZ: Yes. DZ: I remember you telling me that you were shot. In the shoulder. RZ: In the shoulder. And then bullets go through very close to the heart, you know. [Chuckles] JB: Oh... DZ: How old were you when you were shot?
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RZ: Oh, it was 1989. That made me forty-eight years old. DZ: [Pause] Earlier, When you were... Let‟s say when you were thirty, what did you feel about Burma, the war? What were your feelings? RZ: Actually, we hate war. Because my mom and family, my sisters, were arrested two times. Because my dad is a leader of the revolution. First time is 1958 and then one and a half years at prison. Second time is... My mom... 1966. 1966. And she was seven years in prison in Rangoon. With my sister, my younger sister. Her name is Poe Po Zan. I should say at that time it was about 1980, and she had to stay in the prison with my mom for seven years, so she did not go to high school or college. DZ: So your mother was arrested, and your sister was arrested. RZ: And also my uncle, and my grandpa. My grandpa died in prison. They tortured my grandpa over 6-7 years that he was in the prison, you know. DZ: What year do you think your grandpa died, Robert? RZ: Oh... Maybe... 1967, 1968, I think. I saw the obituary in the newspaper. My granddad, you know. DZ: So your mother was seven years in prison. But she came out? RZ: And she came out and stayed at Rangoon. DZ: Yes. And how was her health in her last years? RZ: Health is not so bad. But then I think once she was released from the prison my dad called her to his headquarters. My dad. So before, when she would leave, she would leave from prison for one, two years, and then she was reunited with my dad in East Kawthoolei, at headquarters. So all my family is reunited. And then my mom died in 1982. My mom and my dad, you know, they died only forty days apart. DZ: Should we pause here? Let‟s just pause a minute. DZ: So here we are. Picking up the interview again at Robert Zan‟s house. And I have Jeanna with me from Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM), and Ahmay Ya, and Eh Thweet. And we‟re going to ask you some questions. So, Jeanna JB: Okay. I want to know how in the midst of all of your fighting and being a soldier, when and how you met your wife. RZ: Oh ho! [Chuckles] Yes. Oh... My wife.
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JB: Yes. When and how did you meet her? RZ: Oh, I met her at Wan Ka. JB: Wan Ka? RZ: Yes. Wan Ka... And we got married in 1980. DZ: What is Wan Ka? RZ: Wan Ka is one of the military outposts. DZ: And your wife was living there? RZ: Yes. DZ: With her father? RZ: Oh. Her father was in Pa‟an. Pa‟an. She came with her sister. She lived with her sister. And we met there, you know. JB: What is her name? RZ: Her name is Nan, Nan Mya Mya Htway. DZ: So you married in 1980. RZ: In 1980, yes. DZ: Tell us about the Karen wedding. How was the wedding? RZ: Oh... The wedding, Karen wedding is... I don‟t like big weddings. We had some paddy rice, goat meat, and so it was a very ordinary wedding with the elders. And we signed the certificate. A normal wedding certificate, a normal one, because it was only for each other. We pledge each other. DZ: Robert... Tell me about your religion. Growing up, you went to a monastery... What was your religion when you were a young man? RZ: I was born Christian and my mom and dad teach us about Christ. But when I went to school at the monastery, the monks asked me to, you know, pay homage to Buddha. I think... It‟s no different, because when I was young, all Gods are equal and they teach us the right way. Even Christian or Buddhist or Muslims or Judaism... All Gods teach us the right way. Never kill... They never teach how to kill, rape, or rob.
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DZ: As you were moving around, village to village, were there church services? RZ: Yes. DZ: Were there priests, missionaries? What was your contact with a Christian church? RZ: When we moved to a village there was a church school. And they had a pastor, a Karen pastor. And we went to Sunday school classes. And then they‟d teach us about Christ. DZ: So tell us about the Karen student movement and how you were involved. RZ: So when I was in Rangoon from 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, I joined the student movement, the students were not only Karen, they were students from all over Burma. So I was assigned at the Rangoon Student Union. At Rangoon District, my duty is to organize ten high schools. Ten high schools. And then maybe about ten thousand students. There were only ten schools, ten high schools I organized. And for every demonstration we ran about ten or twenty buses to make a demonstration in Rangoon. The anti-government demonstration. This is part of my student movement - we educated students. We went to school by school and educated them about the government, its wrong policies, you know, and the civil war or economic policy and education policy. So the enemy was the government, you know. DZ: Okay. RZ: The movement in Rangoon, you heard about how the Burmese army killed students. The Military Coup was in March, and they killed students on the 7th of July. They were only in power a few months and the military killed hundreds and hundreds of students on 7th July at Rangoon University. This is now called the July 7th movement. Ne Win killed students. DZ: This was 1962. RZ: 1962. DZ: The Burmese military government. RZ: The military government. The military government killed and massacred students! They dynamited the student union building. Blew it up. DZ: They dynamited the students, who were protesting against the civil war. RZ: Yes, against the civil war. DZ: What was the government? Let me ask you this. We know about the Myanmar military junta. When did the government become this fascist military power? Who was leading this government that was killing students?
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RZ: Ne Win got in as president from 1948... January 1949. And then, there was a military coup on March 2nd. 1962. On March 2nd Burma became a government led by military generals. Ne Win was a military chief of staff and organized the military coup on March 2, 1962. DZ: So it was Ne Win. Ne Win was the person who started the war. Against the Karen? RZ: From 1949 U Nu was prime minister of the government. At that time he was commander in chief of the Burma Army. The Anti-fascist People Freedom League (AFPFL). And there were Karen generals and then he took power to the army. Then in 1949 at the time there was a democratic government. Then there was the coup, the military coup against the government in 1962. DZ: When students were being killed in Rangoon, were you there? RZ: Yes. I was part of the student union at the time. DZ: Tell me what happened. RZ: We had a big demonstration then, after a break, we went to my auntie‟s house and I slept there. This was 7th July, when the enemy, you know, killed the students. My mom heard that the army killed the students and she worried about me. She worried about me and she came to my auntie‟s house. She asked, “Where is Robert?” My aunt said, “He‟s here. He is okay.” This news made her feel better. So after this event we were not safe in Rangoon, and we had to go underground. People said “Don‟t stay here, they will arrest you!” So in 1962 we went underground for a while. We went to a village not far from Rangoon, in a KNU liberated area. Myself and 3-4 friends. DZ: Yes. So this is July 7th... RZ: It was 7th July, yes. DZ: Your mother was worried that you might be among the dead. RZ: Yes. DZ: How many students were killed? RZ: Estimation is about a hundred killed. DZ: Do you remember friends who were killed? RZ: Yes. Henry from the Karen students. A friend of mine. He was a Karen student in Rangoon University, you know. A lot of Burmese friends were killed. I have forgotten their names… I know only Karen names.
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JB: Do you remember any time in your life where you didn‟t have to be worried about the government? RZ: Oh, yes... JB: Was there ever a time in your life when you weren‟t scared? RZ: No. as a human, everybody dies... Everyone is afraid to die, right? But, I think I will die one day. I‟d die for my people. If you‟re scared to die, you can‟t do anything, you know. So let them die. Because I‟d die for my people. I would sacrifice for my people. When we were fighting, you know, the bullets come very close. Shhh... The bullets passed very close. I think I will die soon, but... I believe in God, you know. Before, my mom and dad gave me three chapters of Psalms. You know Psalms, in the Bible? Psalm chapter twenty-three, twenty-seven and ninety-one. (See appendix) (Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd) (Psalm 27 The Lord Is My Light and My Salvation) (Psalm 91 Abiding in the Shadow of the Almighty) So I prayed hard. Praying... Before I fight, I‟d read these three chapters. I think I‟m never hit. If I was hit and died, I would go to heaven. This is my belief. So I would fight. I am scared of fighting you know. DZ: You read the Psalms. RZ: Yes. Psalms Twenty-three, Twenty-seven. Ninety-one. DZ: So the Psalms and the belief in the Bible gave you courage. RZ: “The Lord is my Shepherd…” DZ: What else do you remember from the war? RZ: The cease fires. The Karen revolution is... Ah... 1958. One time, it‟s peace talk. In 1963, my dad... They went to negotiate with the Ne Win government. And there were the ceasefire talks, and finally they ask to surrender. Surrender, surrender. Every time surrender. So we came back. Even the General, the fifth president of KNU. Finally, they asked to surrender. Now they changed their tactic. Built up their arms. But they surrendered and talked about peace with a ceasefire. Then they changed their strategy. So there were maybe eight ceasefire talks. A long history of ceasefire talks. In our website, you know, I‟ll give you the list. DZ: Well. Let‟s try to cover the middle section of your life now. At some point you must have left Karen State and became a refugee...
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Let‟s talk about the refugee camp; and coming to America. When did you leave Burma and go to Thailand? RZ: My last fighting was in 1997. February 23rd in the fourth brigade. It is my last fighting... Big fighting, you know. At the time, my eldest son was wounded. His left arm is a metal rod you know. Then... I think we need to change our strategy. We can‟t fight only with armed revolution. We needed more participation. So I decided to change my strategy. From arms to pen. To nonviolence. A bloodless revolution. So I formed the Karen Solidarity Organization, KSO, in 1997... March 31, 1997. We formed a nonviolence organization, and we were based in Bangkok., Thailand. I became a refugee. Then I decided to go to this country (America). Why? Because we need a Karen young generation, we need educated young Karen. Education. Because in Burma, all our schools were burned down. Churches, schools, and villages were burned down. So everybody fled to the border and then stayed in refugee camps. About a hundred thousand Karen, maybe more, Karen refugees were in Thailand, in the Thai camps. So... my idea is, I think we need to go to other countries to get our young generation education. The enemy said, you Karen, free Karen... If you‟re free Karen plus, you don‟t have an enemy. I said, “Yes. Because we have no school.” So how to build a nation without educated Karen? In the refugee camp, a student has a high school education. All have a high school education, but the Thai government doesn‟t allow Karen to go to the Thai university. So we should go to a third country and get education. So first I thought I will go to Australia for two years and become a citizen. I can then come back and serve my people. But I changed my plan. I decided to come to the U.S. I applied at the U.S. Embassy and they agreed. So first, my wife, my two daughters, they came first. Then later, my other children came. DZ: You decided on a different strategy... War is not the solution. You decided to go to Thailand. Let‟s remember the day you crossed into Thailand. Were there a lot of you traveling together? Did you travel with your wife? Tell me about that day... RZ: Oh, I think it was 1997. Maybe March. At that time, I lived in Kanchanaburi, one of the Thai district towns. Then... one of my pastor‟s friends, he advised me, we need to form an organization and then we should make a nonviolent movement. And his name is Pastor Robin. Robin Bwint, you know. DZ: Is he Karen? RZ: He is Karen. First, we found a few leaders, and then in maybe March or May, we formed the whole group with a Catholic Father, Buddhist monks and a Karen pastor. That‟s maybe twenty or thirty members. We were based in Bangkok. And then we tried to organize our people.
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DZ: Had you crossed over into Thailand? RZ: Yes, I was in Thailand. DZ: Where did you cross? RZ: The Thaung Yin River RZ: My son was wounded. He was sent from Kanchanaburi to a Thai hospital. Over a hundred thousand Karen went to safety in Bangkok. There were a lot of Karen. DZ: Was it difficult to cross the border? Was it dangerous? What was it like? RZ: No, no. For ordinary people, it‟s difficult to cross. But because when I was in the army it was easier. I was very close to the Thai intelligence. So we worked together, and they helped to send me to Thailand. They knew about the Karen revolution and they sympathized with our revolution, you know. DZ: Alright. Let‟s jump forward now. You‟re in a refugee camp. What was the name of the refugee camp? RZ: Ma Nee Loi refugee camp. DZ: You were thinking about maybe going to Australia. But you didn‟t go to Australia. Tell me about that. You chose the United States. And you left in 2000. RZ: In 2000, yes. DZ: Tell us about coming to the U.S. Did you come to Minnesota? Where did you come to? RZ: Okay. Here is why I changed my plans from Australia to the U.S. You know Benjamin Aung? DZ: Yes. RZ: He is my uncle. And then you know Priscilla, his wife? DZ: Yes. RZ: Priscilla came to our camp. And she said, “Hey, Mahn Robert Zan, don‟t go to Australia! Come to the U.S.!” [Chuckles] So I‟m thinking, okay! I will just reapply. Benjamin said he would co-sign for us at World Relief (a resettlement agency). So I came through World Relief Refugee Agency and Benjamin and Priscilla cosigned as my sponsors. When I got here, I lived with him.
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DZ: So Benjamin came before you? Priscilla came before you. RZ: Yes. Benjamin and Priscilla came before me! They came and they cosponsored our family. DZ: Robert, here is a question for Karen oral history. Who was the first Karen here in Minnesota? Do you know? RZ: Oh, yes. The first one is Benjamin Aung and Wilfred Ba Win. DZ: Yes. RZ: In the time when we arrived here, we saw Ba Win, Benjamin Aung and Gideon Kha Su. DZ: Gideon? RZ: Yes. DZ: The Gideon family. RZ: You know, before I knew Karen I knew Ba Win. DZ: Mr. Ba Win was Burmese? RZ: No, he‟s a Kareni. DZ: I did not know Mr. Ba Win was Kareni! RZ: Kareni. Yes. DZ: I knew he was a vet. RZ: Yes, he is a vet. DZ: A vet. He took part in 1988 demonstrations. RZ: Yes. And then he had to escape. He fled to Thailand. DZ: So Mr. Ba Win was the first. RZ: He‟s a Kareni. DZ: Oh! I didn‟t know that. He always said Burmese. RZ: [Chuckles]
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JB: [Chuckles] DZ: Mr. Ba Win. Now he is back working in Thailand? RZ: Yes. Yes, I saw him in Thailand. DZ: Mr. Ba Win was on the board of the Council on Asian Pacific. Minnesotans. He is a wonderful man. He would come to events and always bring dancers and musicians. RZ: [Laughter] DZ: There was a small group back then. Benjamin came with him. RZ: [Chuckles] yes. DZ: Benjamin was very quiet. He came to cultural events with Ba Win. RZ: [Laughing] Yes. DZ: So Mr. Ba Win might have been one of the first Karen to come to Minnesota... RZ: First Karen. DZ: Ah. Good. Good, okay. When you came... How many Karen were here in Minnesota? RZ: Oh, Ba Win, Benjamin, and Gideon, and then they have Joshua. Yes, Joshua and his family. That‟s all. DZ: It was a very small group from Burma! RZ: It was a small group. And then at that time there is a Hmong who worked with Karen. Very few Karen live in Saint Paul. DZ: When you came… You were about fifty-nine years old when you come to Minnesota, right? RZ: I came in 2000. I was born in 1941, so I was fifty-nine years old. Fifty-nine years. [Chuckles] DZ: Tell me about what you were feeling coming to America. What are you feeling about leaving Karen State, leaving Burma and coming to America? RZ: My plan, why I came to U.S., the number one reason is education for our young generation. Number two is to raise awareness about our Karen problems in Burma. Three is to support our Karen in Kawthoolei. This is my plan, my strategy.
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DZ: Yes. RZ: So according to this strategy… Every year about seventy-five of our Karen here graduates now. We have over fifteen hundred students going to school. And now it‟s maybe not less than ten going to college and university, you know. DZ: So you have been successful. To educate Karen youth, the young generation, that was your plan. RZ: Yes. DZ: How did you see that plan would happen? Is it because there is education in America? What was your plan to get Karen educated? Bring families here, educate the young children, was that the plan? RZ: Yes. When I had been here one year, one year, two years, maybe in 2003, we formed KCM [Karen Community of Minnesota]. About thirty families had arrived, and we formed Karen Community of Minnesota. This was the plan to host our Karen from the camps. So it‟s a Karen family. We needed to have a number of the Karen people. A Karen voice, you know. Now it‟s six thousand Karen here and our voice becomes louder. DZ: So you, Benjamin, Priscilla, you sponsored a lot of families. RZ: Yes. Families and friends. And my family sponsored them again. So then every agency sent Karen here. Some of the Karen who came, we did not know them, but we said, it is what we planned. First when they arrive, they need a house. So we collected a hundred dollars from each family here, and then when we knew the arrival date and family size. So only then we can help each other. The newly arrived, they don‟t have a car, or they don‟t know anyone... When I arrived, I worked at the Envelope Company. Then I went for... AY: Adult education. RZ: Basic adult education, English. Six months of English classes and then I worked a job. At that time, more Karen arrived. We had a meeting and Karen Community of Minnesota (KCM) organized Karen volunteers into eight groups or committees. Each group tackled an issue. Housing, Youth were in charge of greeting new arrivals at airport, and the women‟s group got food, rice, and vegetables. There was a school placement center, how to register kids at school. One group took new arrivals for health screening at 555 Cedar, in downtown St Paul. One group showed how to get a social security card. Another how to get welfare benefits. One group showed how to ride the bus, how to do shopping. We did group shopping. There was a general orientation. We told them about driver‟s permits, driver‟s tests.

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DZ: Robert, your English is very good. Tell me about how you learned English. You amaze me. Did you speak English before? Did you learn English when you were a young man? RZ: No, at that time, Kawthoolei high schools are very good in English. So I studied language and talked English, you know. Read, read, read, read, and read. And then read and find the meaning in the dictionary. So I listened to the radio in English, BBC, VOA, or Peking or Moscow at the time. [Chuckles] Peking radio, Moscow radio, BBC, VOA radio. So I learned from my radio and then books, you know. Sometimes I am not grammatically right, but I think you understand my English. [Laughs] DZ: This is great. Good. Okay. You came here, you went to the Hubbs Center and then families were coming, and you were busy helping them with everything. Paperwork... RZ: Yes, at that time I worked with two independent services. I forgot the name. Guardians or something, I don‟t know. Maybe at some hospital, for fifty dollars an hour. School was sometimes seventy dollars an hour, too, because they needed interpreters. So my income is good at the time... [Chuckles] But when the Karen came, many, many Karen came and they asked me to help organize services. I would find people work, I sent them to the... You know, student center, and helped them get welfare. I don‟t get paid for that work. [Laughter] RZ: But I‟m happy. DZ: Yes. RZ: I serve my people. DZ: Yes. RZ: My motto is that I was born to serve my people. This is to my credit. I put the credit at the heaven, you know, and this earns me credit for helping my people. So I save this credit at heaven. Because I serve my people. I love my people. I serve people; and maybe help a few Karen arrive here. DZ: I‟ve known you for five or so years. If I think of Robert Zan and how you are, you seem happy. Is that accurate? RZ: Yes, because I serve my people. So every morning, I check my email, and then I send or I forward some important message, and then I read and I listen to the radio. This is my daily work, revolutionary work. A bloodless revolution. I went to other states to organize our people. Like how we formed KCM here. They need community there. I went to Utica, I went to Iowa, Storm Lake, Iowa and Ohio, I went to Utica, and then I went to Vancouver, in Washington State. So for Karen New Year I went to join the Karen.
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DZ: I remember Oscar Bayee (a Karen) and you traveling to visit other Karen around the USA RZ: Yes, Oscar. DZ: Visiting, helping Karen in many cities. RZ: Yes. DZ: Where is the largest Karen population? Is it Minnesota? Or is it another state? RZ: Oh... Texas has the majority, but they live in different cities in Texas. And there are lots of Karen in Indiana. RZ: But in Minnesota, Karen only live in Saint Paul. DZ: Yes. RZ: Another large group is in Utica in New York State, DZ: You‟ve been there? RZ: I‟ve been to Utica, I‟ve been there before to meet with our Karen. JB: What is special about the Karen community in Minnesota compared to Utica and North Dakota and Texas? What is special about Minnesota Karen? RZ: The Minnesota Karen are well organized under KCM. KCM is our non profit. The Karen in Minnesota are the first to know how to form a nonprofit organization. January 12, 2012 DZ: You are active with the First Baptist Church in downtown St Paul. Tell me about how you became active. RZ: Benjamin and Priscilla were members. So every Sunday we went there for services. I became a member. DZ: Were services in English or Karen? RZ: Services were in English. DZ: Tell me about Pastor Englund and the Karen. RZ: Pastor Bill Englund is like a shepherd for the Karen. He has a program that gives new arrivals a rice cooker. They get a gift basket with blankets, pillows, soap, tooth paste, tooth brush
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things they need, utensils. We had a lot of families coming. The church became their shelter. They slept in the basement, and they could get loans from First Church Credit Union. Also they give scholarships to students. DZ: Tell me more about the classes you took at the Hubbs Center, RZ: I went five days a week, and studied work functional English. DZ: What level did you reach in ELL? RZ: Level six. They teach to level six. DZ: Tell me how Karen support program came about at Vietnamese Social Services. RZ: I went myself to VSS. We got help for them for three years and helped to form a 501.c.3. DZ: Robert, I would like to ask you for a closing comment to end the interview. Perhaps something I have not asked you that is important. Or a message you have for the two thousand Karen new arrivals expected to come to Minnesota in 2012. RZ: I would like to tell them that they will need to change some of the old Karen behaviors here. We need to get rid of our nature of easy come easy go. In their land this was okay. One shirt, salt to eat. But here, we have to change the ways. It is what I call „easy come, easy go.‟ In Burma this attitude is ok. You only have one shirt, one longyi (a sarong). But here you have to work hard. In the mountains, it is easy come, easy go. If you eat salt, it is enough. But here we need to change, get education. If you don‟t change you will be homeless. When we live we need to serve our people, our neighbors. And serve the poor. So we bring only credit to heaven for serving the people. I would say to the newcomers: Coming to the U.S. is a good opportunity for the Karen. The U.S. is a land of opportunity. If you try hard you will get good benefits, good opportunities. Work hard; earn some money for the children, a University education. DZ: Thank you very much, Robert.

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Appendices Psalm quoted by Robert Zan that gave him courage in battle. Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name‟s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[a] I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 27 The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? 2 When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. 3 Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident. 4 One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple. 5 For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion: in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide me; he shall set me up upon a rock.6 And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the Lord. 7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me. 8 When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek. 9 Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. 10 When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up. 11 Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. 12 Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty. 13 I had fainted, unless I had believed to see
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the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 14 Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord. Psalm 41 1 Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble. 2 The Lord will preserve him, and keep him alive; and he shall be blessed upon the earth: and thou wilt not deliver him unto the will of his enemies. 3 The Lord will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness. 4 I said, Lord, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee. 5 Mine enemies speak evil of me, When shall he die, and his name perish? 6 And if he come to see me, he speaketh vanity: his heart gathereth iniquity to itself; when he goeth abroad, he telleth it. 7 All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt. 8 An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him: and now that he lieth he shall rise up no more. 9 Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me. 10 But thou, O Lord, be merciful unto me, and raise me up, that I may requite them. 11 By this I know that thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me. 12 And as for me, thou upholdest me in mine integrity, and settest me before thy face forever. 13 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen. Psalm 91 1 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. 2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. 3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. 4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. 5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; 6 nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. 7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee. 8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. 9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation;
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10 there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. 11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. 12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone. 13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. 14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. 15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honor him. 16 With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.

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