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.
Nerdah Mya is probably the most famous Karen commander. Before I interviewed General Bo Jo and the other generals, they had not been interviewed by Western reporters for five years. Nerdah, by contrast, posted a YouTube interview a few weeks before our arrival. He can be seen and read about in dozens of publications or documentaries. I am intrigued and want to meet the most famous Karen rebel commander—the magnet for much of the controversy. Rob says back at his restaurant, “If Nerdah has any foreigners there, he will trot them out like it was the Westminster Dog show.” After a few phone calls we are directed to drive south and meet with “Gary.”
Gary meets us at 4:45 a.m. outside of his hotel. He is short, heavy eye browed, bullet headed and speaks in a broad Australian twang. We quickly learn he has an obsessive love of providing painfully accurate directions even to the gas station. I figure Gary for a security contractor on leave from Iraq.
We meet a film crew that is also going in. A disheveled Frenchman appears out of a van and keeps asking us who we are. A former French marine turned fixer and photojournalist, he is there to make sure the BBC get in and out without a hitch. In our conversations with Nerdah’s people we had arranged to go in, and we’d been told there might be an ABC or BBC crew along as well. “Nerdah thinks everyone is the BBC,” quips Rob. It turns out it actually is the BBC crew here to cover a historic event.
Unlike our death march to visit the FBR, Nerdah’s soldiers simply drive down a rutted road between huge limestone spires, and suddenly we are in Burma. At the checkpoint a thin fair-haired, middle-aged westerner in military garb stares intently at us. We are in a hurry not because there is fighting but because there is a peace ceremony between the DKBA and KNU. We arrive just as two lines of armed Karen fighters shake and hug.
The rest of the sweltering day is filled with droning speeches, except for a speech by an elderly monk, Rambo. The constant waves of laughter help him work the crowd like a Karen Rodney Dangerfield. Rambo is famous for showing a few Karen rebels how to hitch a ride: They stood beside a road trying unsuccessfully to flag down a driver when Rambo borrowed their gun fired a few shots at passing cars until one stopped. He then handed the gun back, and said, “That’s how you stop a car.”
Nerdah makes a speech first in Karen and then in English for the benefit of the BBC. On the tail end of election coverage he has brokered the Buddhist Karen troops switching sides from the Myanmar government to join with the Christian Karen. They shake hands again for the benefit of the BBC crew and the few unshaven stringers. “Today is the reunification of the country,” he says. “The Burmese will respect our freedom.”
Troops from both sides wear garlands of flowers and on command hug and shake hands. A Buddhist monk blesses then and a priest officiates. Children sing as speeches are made. Colonel Nerdah greets us and welcomes us. A new DKBA flag flies next to the tattered KNLA flag above Krep Po Ta village.
As Nerdah poses for pictures, he greets me in very slightly accented American English. “We must psyop them. After the election we must take the initiative. The Burmese army is waging psychological warfare against us so we need to show that we are together. Aung Sung Syu Kyi cannot do it by herself. We need to forgive and forget. We show love and forgiveness.”
That night back at the camp we have dinner. What made this candle light conversation unnerving was not the thump, thump, thump of distant mortars or even the mix of legless veterans and childlike soldiers that huddled around us, it was the constant smile and politeness of our host. This is ground zero for much of the interest by foreigners fighting inside Burma.
Nerdah was the mentor to Thomas Bleming and many other Western volunteers turned mercenaries. The reason becomes abundantly clear. Nerdah despite his high rank is one of us. A favored son of the Karen’s most famous commander who spent years in the US.
Nerdah went to school in the Napa valley area of California and even has a pilot’s license. He too has dreams of an air force, more volunteers, basically anything to push back the relentless murder and pressure of the Burmese Generals. But his ideas are likely to remain dreams. He shows me his village—once burned and now rebuilt by Populi—and urges me to come back anytime. The BBC is done and is on the phone looking for “abused refugees” from the recent fighting to complete their story. They finally have to film them backlit. Its time for Rob and I to leave the war zone and return to “civilization” a short drive back.
When we are done with Nerdah he appears in civilian clothes and is eager to get home to his three daughters and wife. Military commander has become urban commuter.
We are back at Rob’s restaurant in the small bucolic town. As the customers move inside from the rain, Rob and I have gin and tonics over a spectacular pad Thai. Rob is careful on how he lays out the way things work and the people that flow through here.
The towns along the border are full of NGO workers with ponytails and earrings. Very few go “inside.” Fewer take up arms. One man who did is Oregonian, Robert Erhausen. It’s opening night at his new pizza place on the river. He has a couple of tables. He stops making pies long enough to sit and talk. When I point out the sparse attendance he says, “It’s Ok. This place will make money. It’s a soft opening.”
Erhausen is the grandfather of the foreign clique. And runs the Displaced Persons Action Committee, supports the Safe Haven Orphanage, and now trains and supports seven demining teams who work with wands to clear mines. He doesn’t look 63 years old, but he joined the US Marine Corps at age17 and fought in Vietnam, working with the Nung tribesmen in the Central Highlands.
“I first came here off and on 14 years ago,” he says. Like many of the foreign volunteers, he came through Nerdah and eventually decided to stay. Rob was once connected to Baptist groups and ended up commanding a division of Karin soldiers. “I took over Ben Shipley’s old regiment. Ben was never in the military. He was doing drugs and went nuts. Started firing an AK and was shipped when the 7th brigade was overrun.”
Erhausen clashes with Doug because he now works with the government-backed Buddhist DKBW as well as the Christian KNLA. Erhausen’s take is that Doug is good on tactics but he’s not good on strategy. He applies that criticism to the KNLA. “It’s a business for the Generals. On both sides. They even give back weapons when they take ground from the government,” he says. He eventually ended up training General Bo Jo’s Special Forces but he senses that this war will not end well.“ I went to a meeting with the Generals and said, ‘It looks like you are losing a lot of real estate. What happens when you lose?’ They said, ‘we will pray.’” He shakes his head. “They are like the North American Indians at the end of the West. They’ll just take up the Ghost Dance . The Karen Generals are waiting for the second coming.”
He is getting less idealistic and more pragmatic. Even the pizza parlor is a better way to fund his activities. “If it weren’t for us they would have no medicine or food inside. I have fed up to 10,000 people.” Erhausen is interrupted by the waitress—there are more pizzas up.
I ask him about the foreigners. “A lot of people go home after a couple of years because they get disgusted.” He thinks back, trying to help yet another reporter with a story on mercenaries. “There were the Germans who paid to shoot people.” He offers but then thinks, “But it’s not something worth talking about.”
A briefing document shows that the end may be sooner than the second coming. The Burmese Generals have been eager students of how Sri Lanka successfully ended its 26-year-old war. They simply kept the media out and crushed the Tamils with overwhelming force. The Burmese now have built three-dozen new military bases, ploughed new roads and purchased 62 assault helicopters in preparation for what may be the final battle. The election was simply one item on a checklist to show that the “free and democratic” nation of Myanmar was simply eliminating a troubling insurgency. A campaign of infiltration, assassination, assault and assimilation is expected to begin this year. At that point, the war will be over. The foreigners have lit up the war in Burma, but one by one they flicker and then go out.
Waking back from Erhuasen’s, Rob seems to have forgiven Tookie, his girlfriend. When we returned from the jungle he was furious that a giant karaoke machine had appeared in his restaurant and that none of his hired help could find cigarettes.
It is the festival of loy krathong, and it occurs on the night of the full moon. Thais launch their krathongs to carry their dreams and to float away their sorrows. Others release khom fai, paper kites, lifted into the sky by a burning wick. The luminescent balloons float ill fortune away. Rob and Tookie light a flickering balloon and wait for it to rise. It gently sways and then lifts. It climbs until it is just a speck, then catches fire, and flares brightly. Then it is gone.