Three trips inside

Trip Start Sep 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

On Christmas eve I found myself "inside," geographically in Myanmar, across the Moei River in a military camp of the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army). These are the Christian Karen, the military arm of the KNU (Karen National Union) who have been fighting the Burmese since the British left in the late 1940's. At this brigade's base, they are dedicating a new church, the old one was burned down by the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council- Burmese Government soldiers).

The illegal border crossing was surprisingly simple, just a bamboo bridge with no markings to speak of. Two guys on the backs of elephants cross a little upstream, heading home from work in a farmfield. On the other side, the sign says "Welcome to Kawthoolei," the name of the mythical Karen homeland. A guy with an RPG rocket launcher and very few teeth in his smile checks me in under my fake name.

I came here because Loretta, one of the subjects of the radio documentary about Karen women activists that I'm working on, is going to be giving away sarongs as Christmas presents to the many amputees. On the outskirts of the camp, red tape and paint mark areas where the SPDC or the KNLA have laid landmines, the cause of most of the amputations. But Loretta is nowhere to be found, so I watch the soldiers play soccer and wander through the camp attempting to communicate in broken Karen language.

The KNLA seems poorly funded for a veteran army. As far as I've heard, the only people getting them weapons are ex-US marines and other individual foreigners sympathetic to their cause, but then so far I've only heard their story. The only thing uniform about the KNLA uniforms are the patches on their shoulders. The guns are Russian, Chinese, and American, some look to be WW2 issue. Old soldiers with plastic legs smoke handrolled cigars and balance kids and rifles in their tattooed arms.

Around the perimeter the troops are very much on guard. This would be an ideal time for the SPDC to attack, since there are so many family members at the camp and everyone is preoccupied with Christmas. But a loose ceasefire seems to be holding, and although the SPDC continue to attack Karen villages, confiscate rice harvests, rape women, and force villagers to be their porters and human landmine detectors, the armies are not engaging for the time being.

The evening is spent at a makeshift stage in a jungle clearing, and the guitars are aimed west towards the rest of Burma and the distant SPDC camps. Christian prayers are harmonized and a rock band backs up several famous Karen musicians. There's even a hiphop act. "That's you, you sing now," says my friend John, who secretly signed me up. The crowd cheers as they introduce the white guy, and completely unprepared, I pick up a Chinese stratocaster and sing "Stand By Me" while soldiers put tinsel wreaths around my neck and dance their way offstage. Loretta never shows up, probably because of police checkpoints back in Thailand (the Thai princess is traveling in the area this week, so security is extra tight, especially for refugees). Before the Christmas service, several Karen are baptised in the river that separates Burma from Thailand. My escorts are waiting for me the moment the service finishes, I worry it may have put them at risk to pick me up.

On the morning of the 29th, I pile into a pickup truck with some foreign friends and drive south to another hidden border crossing, this time to a camp of the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army). In 1995, the Burmese Government exploited a religious rift among the Karen rebels, and convinced Buddhist leaders (who weren't satisfied with their representation among the Christian leadership) to sign a separate ceasefire. This led to the fall of Manerplaw, the base of the united Karen forces and a meeting point for other ethnic groups, who have since been pressured into ceasefires or forced into submission. This division obviously frustrated the Karen Christians, some of whom view the Buddhists as traitors. The DKBA have better weapons and equipment (supposedly from smuggling methamphetamines and other shady businesses) and receive little interference from the SPDC, although they haven't gotten the free homeland either. Amazingly they have been allowed to keep their Kalashnikovs and M-16's ten years into the ceasefire.

We cross an even smaller bridge/border and are taken to the local commander's house, who gives us t-shirts with Kawthoolei flags on them, and gets his picture taken with the foreigners. Four of us are living and working in Mae Sot, the other five are travellers who happened to get friendly with us the night before. One guy is a week into his first foreign travel ever; quite a jump from the London office life to the Burmese rebel military camp.

December 30th is Karen New Year, and there's lots of military posturing, a rock band, and many groups of Karen boys and girls dancing traditionally onstage. It looks very cultural, but alot of it is for show: Look at the happy ethnic groups enjoying their freedom. But among the hundreds of smiling DKBA troops are taller, meaner SPDC soldiers, with different shoulder patches and suspicious stares. In the afternoon we hear three bursts of machine gun fire, followed by a crowd of people running down a dirt street. We are told these were warning shots to a "crazy guy with a machete," although one of our foreign friends says the rifles weren't shot into the air. Everyone else I ask changes the subject quickly.

A marxist-looking guy with a braided goatee stands at the side of the commander. He keeps trying to get us foreigners up on stage to speak to the crowd. For the travelers it doesn't matter, but for me and the others working in Mae Sot, to speak so publicly with a rebel group is a guarantee that we will be blacklisted from entering Burma legally in the future. The SPDC have an intelligence network that would surprise George Orwell, (and he likely drew his inspiration for 1984 from his time as a British policeman in the former colony). A photograph of us with a rebel general, even though the general is cooperating with the government, is enough to make us look like spies from the west. We have to be repeatedly rude to avoid these photo ops and I have to avoid confrontations with Braided Beard, who seems to be some sort of rebel minister of propaganda. I find out later he's a general.

I go off in search of music to record, but there's no Karen music, only ethnic Burmese, like hearing cowboy songs at a powwow. So I record a few hours of Burmese music with Karen soldiers staring at my equipment with great curiosity. Next morning begins with fireworks at 5 AM, parades and hours of speeches by the self-important generals, themselves posturing for the SPDC, who has their film crews onhand. I meet the daughter of a KNU general, who has family on both sides. She explains lots of Karen history, how the Burmese have been fighting the Karen for a thousand years, how the Karen are a lost tribe of Israel, how next year the Christians and Buddhists will reconcile and celebrate New Years together...

There's boxing matches under a thatched roof behind the stages. A few foreigners get grabbed by Braided Beard and are kept like pets in comfy chairs behind the DKBA generals. I manage to avoid it by hanging out with the musicians, who play along to the boxing with frantic gongs, tuned drums, and an oboe-like instrument. The fighters are Thai vs. Burmese, and the matches are gloveless, just some hemp wrapped around the fists and quite bloody. I want to stay longer, to try and get more interviews, but Braided Beard is getting more insistent, and we leave for Thailand before he can get us onstage.

On the 31st, I meet a woman who has taken in 30 orphaned children and she invites us to visit her village. She owns some land inside Burma between the KNLA and DKBA controlled areas and she's going to try to build a school where the children of Christian and Buddhist Karens can study together. Since the radio program I'm working on is supposed to be about women working for peace, I readily accept. We rent motorbikes and I embarrass myself by laying one down about halfway through the winding 100km journey. No major injuries but a stinging reminder of how f*cked I could have been if I'd broken something or had any serious bleeding this far from civilization. We pass the barbed wire perimeter of Mae La camp, where about 50,000 refugees live in thatch huts waiting for the situation across the border to change.

We reach her town and my bad luck continues as the digital recorder seems to have bitten the dust, leaving most of the interviews unrecorded. Our host takes us across the river into Burma for a third time, to a small village where children frequently die of malaria and the local doctor begs us for antibiotics and Burmese-language HIV information. The local school (a chalkboard and some benches) teaches Burmese, mathematics, and English, although the teacher cannot hold a conversation. We spend the evening tutoring English on the Thai side, teaching our hosts' adopted kids the difference between x's and f's.

The next morning the mist lays on the river and in the pockets between the karst mountains. A boy prepares a long thin canoe for a five hour trip to Mae Ra Mo, another refugee camp downstream. The boat is loaded with rice, petrol, and cigarettes. Originally we were going to meet some KNU leaders today, but our host changes her mind and wants us to return to Mae Sot immediately. We follow the road back along the river, past the camps and rice fields to Mae Sot, where ice cream and internet connections ease the bruises and mosquito bites.
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