Robert Young Pelton heads deep inside the jungle of Burma to meet rebels, mercenaries, missionaries, and monks. All are engaged in the world’s longest running civil war. At the center of this conflict are the Free Burma Rangers, led by a former US Special Forces soldier known as The Father of the White Monkey.
Kawthoolie – The distant sound of steady mortar fire didn’t seem to bother Lt Col Nerdah. Nerdah is the 41-year-old commander of the 6th Brigade and the son of the late Karen supreme commander Bo Mya. The commander had changed out of his dress uniform and was now relaxing by candlelight wearing a black t-shirt and beret. Nerdah had just concluded a busy day of peace celebrations between the DKBA (the Myanmar government-backed Buddhist faction of the Karen) and the rebel Christian faction. But the day wasn’t over yet. “There are about 100 government soldiers making their way toward us. I will send my men to attack them and mine the way. It will not happen quickly.” Turning our attention to the dinner of rice and tinned sardines it seemed just like yet another day in the 60-year-old war between the Burmese government and the Karen rebels.
The Karen have been fighting their war of independence ever since the British gave national sovereignty to the Burmese after World War II. Like many other ethnic groups pitted against a brutal regime, the Karen view the Burmese as historic interlopers and brutal oppressors. The outside world sees the conflict as an endless internal war generating countless deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced people. And while there are signs of progress — President re-elct Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are slated to visit the country this month, which will be the first visit by an American President in more than 50 years — a recent report by the International Crisis Group reaffirms that Burma has long been on the brink of internal collapse and that, in reality, little has changed.
Today, the Burmese government and the generals control the central delta area while the ethnic groups surround them. The country is divided into black zones where free fire is allowed, brown zones where rebels are under control, and white areas where there is no fighting. My trip is to the black zone just east of the capital city, Yangon. The steep, remote area is made dangerously beautiful by limestone cliffs, lush valleys, dense jungle and unspoiled rivers, like the Salween.
It is here in the unrecognized nation of Kawthoolie (no one can quite agree on the source of the name) that the Karen rebels appear to be making their last stand against the ethnic cleansing, slow strangulation and constant attrition imposed by the Burmese generals and their 300,000-man conscript army.
I came to Burma during the elections. The first ones held in two decades. The rebels and minorities assumed the Generals would win and would use that win to launch a decisive offensive against the Karen. The United Nations and much of the Western world considered the elections rife with fraud. Not surprisingly, the State Peace and Development Council won handily. As a symbol of the party’s confidence, it released former democratic leader Aung Sun Syu Shi from house arrest. Although the event was noted around the world as a positive sign, it did nothing to help the millions of ethnic groups still fighting the government. If anything, her arrest rekindled the flame of resistance — releasing an elderly woman to a defunct party seemed to show that her cause was extinct. Some ethnic military groups, like Nerdah’s, moved against Burmese government forces after the election. The current result was the fighting that was coming our way.
To the outside world, it may have seemed that the war between the ethnic groups and the Burmese had grown stagnant — it was, after all, the longest running civil war in the world. Even the Lonely Planet guidebook and agreed that it was safe to visit Myanmar. Sylvester Stallone filmed the fourth installment of his Rambo franchise along the Salween River and raised some awareness of the area. But with higher-profile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seemed the rebels were doomed to obscurity.
I first became interested in Burma when I heard that a friend of mine, who I encouraged to go to Burma in the first place, was hanging out with the rebels. But even more interesting to me was the long-standing relationship between mercenaries and the Karen rebels. In he 1980s I had heard about the frontlines of Burma at Soldier of Fortune conventions in Las Vegas. Eager doctors, loud braggarts and quiet vets talked about war there, and the wink-wink part was that if you wanted to wield a gun, camera or scalpel, adventure awaited you in Burma. Many viewed the fight as a holy war where the Buddhist-but-rather-odd gaggle of Generals were intent on wiping out Christian hill tribes.
The Generals seized power in 1962, creating the country’s longest running military dictatorship. In reality, though, the war between the Karen and Burmese had gone on for centuries. The Karen have long since been an agrarian hill people who have viewed the Burmese as aggressive interlopers. Though this interloping may date to the 9th century, it continues to this day as the Burmese slowly, methodically and brutally eliminate, integrate and intimidate the Karen and other ethnic groups into submission.
The most likely explanation for why the generals haven’t totally wiped out the Karen is the people’s inherent skills as classic jungle guerrilla fighters with a history that goes back to supporting the British against the Japanese, which led to the inability of the Burmese rulers to provide ethnic representation inside what is now Myanmar. It is clear from watching the non-government controlled areas shrink over time that the Karen are losing.
There is another reason war continues. War is a business in Burma. War keeps the Generals in power and the rebels fighting. The Generals of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), formerly known as the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), generate one 100 percent of the their foreign direct investment for natural resources (minerals, oil, teak). The international monetary fund estimates that the Generals have $5 billion in foreign currency reserves , and that they’re ‘working’ the disparity between the official exchange rate for natural gas at 6 kyat for every U.S dollar externally, but internally providing 1,000 kyat for every dollar — keeping the 994 kyat and dropping only kyat in the national bank. That neat trick earns Myanmar the label as the third most corrupt nation, according to Transparency International (only Afghanistan and Somalia are considered worse). There is also plenty of money for Russian fighter jets (20) and helicopters (50), Chinese light attack helos (50) and troops (300,000), and an embryonic nuclear program. The grim statistics firmly place Myanmar at the bottom end of the world’s list of countries.
The Karen National Union (KNU) and its military arm, The Karen National Liberation Army, have been fighting this war for 60 years, since the first post-colonial battle on January 31, 1949. The Karen, however, have not been not without the suspicion that the Karen leadership have also turned the war into a business that supports an aging Karen infrastructure. More war, more funds; no war, no funds. KNU leaders collect the donations and supplies and do not pass them down to the troops (who fight for free) or the villagers. The Generals keep a tight lid on coverage of circumstances in Burma, and the rebels, by virtue of their isolation, get little to no coverage of their fight.
It’s hard, perhaps intentionally impossible, to estimate the size of the Karen army. A rough guess is 8,000 soldiers and 2,000 militia groups with varying qualities of weapons and supplies. The free fire area in the south, where I’m headed, is divided into seven Brigades, each commanded by a different personality. The goal of the Karen is to force a federal system, but their motto of “no surrender” reflects a lifetime of distrust of an enemy who continues a scorched-earth policy, combined with a “four cuts” policy that continues to shrink territory, gain control, and integrate Karen through division. There was clearly only one way to find out
Rob, 39, is a friend from California and former toiler in the LED-lit trenches of the Hollywood special effects factories. He is animated, multidimensional, attention-deficit-disordered and, for once, at peace with his new life as a volunteer and local restaurant owner. We sit above the river overlooking a postcard scene of tropical beauty — a place used by Hollywood to film movies like Air America for its similarity to Vietnam in the 60’s. As he shows off his girlfriend’s ta tim deep fried fish specialty, he looks for a way to sum up his life and reasons for being here.
“I put digital pants on dead VC in Apocalypse Now Redux.” His air quotes create a humorous epitaph. He continues, “I was Charlese Theron’s driver… Her mom was hot… I was a cocaine dealer, a bouncer at a lesbian bar, former skate punk, worked a halibut boat out of Cook inlet, an editor on the Gotti show. I even edited Intervention. He pauses in that ADD style. “We cut out the parts where the guy was smoking crack out of a broken light bulb while another guy was blowing him.
“I was sitting in a cubicle working stupid hours… making $100,000 and spending $100,000. Getting fat, frustrated and heading toward 40.” He flips out another Marlboro Light from a pack adorned with a gruesome photo of a cancerous liver.
“I was poor, not white-trash poor but Southern California poor. Spent my life in shitty apartment complexes. My Dad was a rocket scientist. My mother was a hippie who divorced my father when I was five.” The waitress pours another LEO beer and drops ice in our glasses. “During my teens, I was a fatty, a stoner and kind of a lush. My mother took me to visit Uncle Carol, a former marine sniper. He would beat me when I visited him at his ranch. He would say, ‘You’re kind of a pussy kid.’ He was a cut-off-the-ears type of guy. He would bring me down to the bar, order a Miller Lite and tell me Vietnam sniper stories like: ‘The CIA paid me to shoot this VC colonel. I had to shoot through this hooker.'”
Rob shakes his head. “When he bought his ranch that was my Auschwitz. I had to kill gophers, dig holes… crazy stuff. He was just one of a series of fucked-up mentors.” Rob takes another drag and stubs out the cigarette. “But, hey… I love the crazy people and the crazy people love me.”
He’s well prepared for the trip into Burma. He’s done it 17 times now and has a cupboard full of gear. Hydrating salts, foot care, HEST knife, Becker patrol pack, short machete, local bug juice (“You’re done having kids right?”), and one wet outift, one dry, a pair of US-made jungle boots… and the look.
“Yeah I’m a little vain out there,” he says. “I’m rocking a Khmer headband, aviator glasses and a fedora on top. Straight out of a Michael Jackson video. Burma is a funny place. Kids have names like Hitler cause they dig the imagery.”
Rob has been here a year and slowly been accepted into the expat community of NGO’s and freelance foreign military advisers. The difference is that the military folks who come over for two weeks or so don’t fit in. They go directly from the airport into safe houses. Every square inch of white skin has to be covered up. It bothers Rob that a lot of them seem to be on holiday, drinking loudly and showing gory pictures at local bar. “The Thais are cool with the humanitarian stuff as long as it’s on the down low. But some of these military guys are just genetically programmed. I guess they way they carry themselves, haircuts, clothing.” This nameless town is just one of the gateways for mercenaries, missionaries and do-gooders who come to help the rebels.
But it is another foreigner in particular, an American, who most drew me here to Burma. He is perhaps the most influential and effective Westerner working behind enemy lines to help the rebels. He has acquired an almost legendary reputation. In these parts he is know simply as The Father of the White Monkey.
Getting inside is simple. Look at any map of South East Asia and you can cross almost anywhere along Burma’s hundreds of miles of unguarded border. I chose to sneak in with Rob, who has spent some time with the major players. To get there requires hours of driving mountainous mud roads to get to a major river, where you’re then hidden under a dirty tarp and ferried to any number of Karen refugee camps along the border. In an odd love-hate relationship between Thailand and Burma, both sides agree to pretend that if each sees nothing, there is nothing to report or even to crack down on. But if you mess up and get flagged, you could be responsible for shutting down the life supply for thousands of desperate refugees.
The refugee camps aren’t the grim, tent-like affairs that smell of human waste and suffering. Karen IDP camps are clean, orderly with self-appointed management, security, logistics, bamboo houses and spotless latrines. People smile and wave and food, blankets and mosquito nets appear without prompting. This is one of the Karin’s main problems. They are stubbornly cheerful and resourceful, even in the worst of times. It may be this collective power of optimism, selfless charity, and lure of lost causes that binds outsiders to them.
We’re inside. We sleep in a classroom used to teach young Karen medics. We have been trying for days to contact Thai Boon, the head of “Ranger 49,” on the sat phone. Thai Boon is the man that can send us inside to meet the Generals and the foreign fighters. That night when we go to Nanji’s store for our nightly can of warm Chang beer, we find him cross-legged on the split bamboo floor. My first thought is that he looks and talks exactly like Jackie Chan.
He invites us to sit down. He hasn’t bothered to turn on his sat phone in who knows how long. “Where did I go to school? Harvard!” He laughs. “No, I have a grade 4.” He laughs louder. Thai Boon,47, is the son of a KNU bigwig. He runs Ranger 49, named after the year the war started, though he doesn’t really have soldiers nor is he a Ranger. But he runs the foreigners in and coordinates training.
“He’s like the Hollywood agent of Kayin State. He schmoozes all the foreigners,” Rob explains. “He used to run a $30,000-a-year officers training school. It shut down last year when it ran out of money.”
Thai Boon has been called here to meet with the Generals. Heads of the 5th, 3rd, and 6th brigades are here. Although Karen state is separated into 7 “brigades,” the 4th fell in the rebels’ June 2009 offensive, and the 7th fell soon after.
Boon hears my pitch of wanting to go inside and says, “You will go to 3rd brigade!” While the villagers watch Mr. Bean and a Dennis Rodman movie, Boon lays out a map on the polished bamboo floor of the store and holds it down with Burmese cheroots. “Here is 3rd brigade. Here is Dawa.” He slides cheroots to mark the spots. He chuckles with glee “Ooooh, it’s another planet! The rest of the world goes forward in time, we go back 250 years. You will see!”
In the dim light he gets serious and looks up at us. “You can go. But don’t give up… Never give up. If you give up, a lot of problems. It’s an 18-kilometer hike at night. Very bad.” He jabs his palm upward to make is point. “Very steep!” He makes clawing motions. “First night you walk by night. Rest of time you walk by day. Then four more days during the daytime. You just carry water. Porters will carry your packs! OK?”
Rob and I are not gaunt tri-athletes. I am 6-4 and 240 pounds, and the last time I took a serious walk in the jungle was at gunpoint after being kidnapped in Colombia in 2002. Rob and I look at each other. How could we say no?
Part II coming next week — Up the river and into the rebel camp of the Karen…