Karen community of Bendigo prepares for Thingyan water festival

ONE week after the city’s Easter festivities, the Bendigo Karen community will welcome the lunar new year. 

Thingyan, a traditional water festival, will be celebrated from 10am to 1.30pm on Saturday at the Bendigo Neighbourhood Hub in Strathdale. 

If you were to visit parts of Asia during the festival, Venerable Ashin Moonieinda said you’d likely end up soaking wet. 

The Karen community leader said water played an important part in Thingyan celebrations, and people often carried containers of water or garden hoses and drench one another. 

Water is used more conservatively during Thingyan celebrations in Bendigo. Young people might sprinkle special water on their elders as a sign of respect. 

Water also serves as a symbolic cleaning from evil and misfortune. 

Food and dance are at the heart of the festivities in Bendigo. 

The water festival is a public event, and the Karen community has encouraged people of all faiths and cultures to join in the celebrations.

For more about the water festival, click here.

Celebrating a milestone: Ten years in Bendigo

WEDNESDAY marks 10 years since Kyaw Pyaint Pah Thei, Lah Su Pah Thei and their children moved to Bendigo - believed to be the first Karen family to have done so.

Lah Su Pah Thei had little in the way of formal education before was offered English lessons in Bendigo, as part of a refugee settlement program.

It is with pride that he says all three of his children have received an education.

“Everything is safe here,” Lah Su says.

“Life is very smooth.”

Kyaw Pyaint Pah Thei, Lah Su Pah Thei and their three children are believed to be the first Karen family to move to Bendigo, 10 years ago on Wednesday. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Kyaw Pyaint Pah Thei, Lah Su Pah Thei and their three children are believed to be the first Karen family to move to Bendigo, 10 years ago on Wednesday. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Bendigo has been a safe haven, a place where he and his wife no longer feel the need to worry about the future of their family. 

Instead, they dream of opportunities - of a generation that will never experience the horrors they have survived.

Lah Su lost a parent and a leg to the civil war in Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma.

One of his siblings remains in a refugee camp, while Kyaw Pyaint has a sister and a mother in a camp.

War erupted in what was then known as Burma after the country gained independence in the late 1940s.

Lah Su was born in Bilin, a town in the Mon State, about 20 years later. 

He became a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army at the age of 18, fighting against the Burmese military.

That’s how he encountered the landmine that claimed his leg. 

His father was killed by the Burmese military, in the village. 

Attacks, executions, forced labour, landmines and deprivation were all typical of the conflict.

“Burmese soldiers caught me,” Kyaw Pyaint said, reflecting on her youth.

She escaped from the Burmese military during a fight with the Karen National Liberation Army and made it to the border of Burma and Thailand.

Kyaw Pyaint Pah Thei and Lah Su Pah Thei discuss life in Bendigo. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Kyaw Pyaint Pah Thei and Lah Su Pah Thei discuss life in Bendigo. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

In a time of such fear and animosity, Kyaw Pyaint and Lah Su fell in love. 

What was initially a friendship became something more substantial. 

All three of the couple’s children were born in refugee camps, in Thailand. That’s also where the children started their schooling. 

Life in refugee camps such as Mae La was an improvement on the persecution from which Lah Su and Kyaw Pyaint fled. 

But it’s when they talk about their lives in Bendigo that they appear most relaxed. 

Their faces light up, and it’s like the weight of the fears and struggles they had shouldered in Burma and Thailand has lifted from their shoulders. 

“Happy. Relief,” are words Lah Su and Kyaw Pyaint associate with their home of 10 years.

They arrived in Bendigo on April 26, 2007.

The city has since welcomed almost 200 Karen families, many of whom settled in other Australian cities before moving to Bendigo. 

But not the Pah Thei family.

Lah Su said they had been seeking to move to a small, community-minded city. From what he was told, Bendigo matched that description. 

“Beautiful city,” he says with a broad smile when I ask whether it met his expectations. 

But there has been a lot of change, Lah Su says. 

The public hospital is getting bigger. The public transport routes are expanding, and more services are being offered. 

"When we came there were not many cars in the city,” Lah Su says. 

“Now it is a big city. More people are coming – many, many people are here now.”

Kaye Graves of Bendigo Community Health with the Venerable Ashin Moonieinda. Picture: SUPPLIED

Kaye Graves of Bendigo Community Health with the Venerable Ashin Moonieinda. Picture: SUPPLIED

In Bendigo, the Pah Thei family found a community only too happy to help them.

That support has increased throughout the years, as the Karen population has grown. 

Much of that growth might be attributed to the Pah Thei family, which has been spreading the word about how much they enjoy living in Bendigo.

The Venerable Ashin Moonieinda, a Bendigo-based leader of the Karen community, said the city offered more support than many others. 

The Buddhist monk was the second member of the Karen community to settle in Bendigo.

The Venerable Moonieinda said the city was home to many community organisations, groups, and volunteers.

To his knowledge, Werribee remains home to the most populous Karen community in Victoria.

The Venerable Moonieinda also works with Karen leaders in the Melbourne suburbs of Noble Park, Hoppers Crossing and Springvale, and the Wimmera town of Nhill.

Gai Porh La Myint and fellow dancers prepare for the water festival. The colour yellow is associated with the occasion, and symbolises purity.

Gai Porh La Myint and fellow dancers prepare for the water festival. The colour yellow is associated with the occasion, and symbolises purity.

His niece, Gai Porh La Myint, shares his passion for helping the Karen community. 

But the 21-year-old pharmacy student is equally determined to be an active and engaged member of the broader community.

She is part of a generation of young Karen people who attended Australian schools, and has had to learn to juggle both her Karen and Australian cultural influences.

Becoming more confident in her English proficiency was a turning point in her life in Bendigo.

It took about three of four years before the language started to feel like it was coming naturally to her. 

That’s no mean feat, given English is Gai Porh’s fourth language, and is “completely different” to the others she knows. 

She started English lessons soon after arriving in 2008, and was enrolled in high school the same year.

As one of only two members of the Bendigo Karen community to transition seamlessly from VCE to university, Gai Porh is a dedicated student. 

“When you’re in Thailand, you don’t get that amount of education offered to you,” she says. 

“Take the opportunity.”

The Karen community in Bendigo prepares for the water festival. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

The Karen community in Bendigo prepares for the water festival. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

To learn more about the Karen people, click here.

Opportunities to lead

PLANS to assist the Karen community in Bendigo could see the regional city thrust into the national spotlight. 

Community leader the Venerable Ashin Moonieinda has shouldered the responsibility for plans to build a Karen Burmese Buddhist monastery in Bendigo. 

The Buddhist monk, based in Long Gully, has also identified a need for a Karen medical clinic and a Karen aged care centre. 

He believes Bendigo will be leading the way in all three projects. 

The monastery plans have been keeping him busy, but the Venerable Moonieinda said he intends to apply for planning permits for the medical clinic and aged care centre as soon as he the project is complete. 

The city is home to about 1000 Karen people, the majority of whom were resettled in Australia as refugees following a protracted civil war in Myanmar. 

Wednesday marks 10 years since the first Karen family moved to Bendigo. 

Bendigo is now estimated to be home to more than 1000 Karen people, City of Greater Bendigo community partnerships manager Steven Abbott said.

He expects to learn more once the data from the most recent Census is released.

Kaye Graves, of Bendigo Community Health Services, is proud of what the Karen people and the Bendigo community have achieved together. 

“I see our multicultural Bendigo growing from strength to strength,” she said.

She said it was important the organisation continued to support people of refugee background to thrive in the Bendigo community, and that the community was open to learning about the journeys of people with a refugee background. 

Noemi Cummings, of the Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services, has been involved with the Karen community in Bendigo since the beginning.

“Bendigo is a much richer place because of the Karen people being here,” she said.

But the Karen community still faces challenges, such as language barriers. 

For more about the monastery plans, see next week’s Bendigo Advertiser.

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