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?
“Dawa” is the home of the legendary Free Burma Rangers, or FBR as they are called. To some, the FBR is an “up the river” paramilitary force run by a deeply Christian, former Special Forces Major who goes by the name The Father of the White Monkey. Others will tell you that the FBR’s secretive leader is the most effective foreigner working with the rebels deep inside Burma against the Generals. Thai Boon waves his hands. “Crazy Amish Christian relief people. It’s hard to tell where they begin and where FBR begin.” Boon and Rob are reticent about the “gullawa,” or white people, who are currently inside Burma. ”The normal tour is a two-week vacation or leave. I don’t really get into to what they do. Some of it is above my pay grade. I have heard stories,” says Boon.
The next morning we have visitors. Two thin Italians from Lake Garda who rebuild villages inside Burma for an NGO called Populi, and a young American who is clearly ex-military. They have walked three days from the interior to reach here. The American says he is “security.” It’s hard to imagine what one unarmed person could provide in the way of security, but he says he is along to determine enemy troop positions and navigate the humanitarians safely in and out. The Italians were going to travel further until they found out that a three-day hike takes five days. They turned around seven hours short of Dawa. Rob and I remember to factor this in. The Karen estimate travel time for themselves—not for heavy, lumbering gullawas. We decide that if we make it to Dawa, it will be an accomplishment.
Although the American is at first stand offish around his Italian clients, when they leave he becomes chatty. Jack, 27, is a former Marine Force Recon soldier with who tells me that most of his military records were redacted when he started doing spooky stuff in Colombia starting in 1998. “I read an article in Soldier of Fortune about fighting in Burma. I kept that article on what to take inside, and had it posted on the inside of my locker for years.”
Jack first connected to Burma through Karen expat, Robert Zan. Zan was a former commander in the Karen army who now lives in Minnesota and raises money for Karen in the US. Jack’s next step was to get in touch with Thomas Bleming, a Vietnam vet in his 60s who wrote a book about his brief time in Burma and what appears to be his conversion from self-described PTSD effected Vietnam Vet to journalist to mercenary.
“In my Google searches,” Jack says, “I would come across Thomas Bleming mouthing off. So I made contact with him. He spent the next three months trying to sell me his book. His book is basically a road map on how to get in. He invited me to meet him here.
“Tom had made a couple of previous trips. He also went to Honduras to see if he could get involved in that. Now he is trying to get something going along the border in Mexico. He tells people he has been in 25 conflict zones and hasn’t yet figured out how to make money. Tom even appointed himself as consul general.” Jack sums it up: “The Karen are easy on people who are a little bit crazy.”
Jack also sees himself transitioning from marine to trainer to mercenary. “I was in the military from 1995 to September 19, 2001. I have been shot twice, stabbed seven times with an ice pick and had 8 inches of my intestine removed. Toward the end of my time, I spent nine months in the brig. I went from private to sergeant to private.” He provides a quick but convincing recap of his time working with counter-drug, CIA and other groups in Latin America and Africa. “I worked as a shooting instructor at Front Sight near Pahrump, Nevada.”
He first came to the region in 2007 on an “O” English teaching visa. Now he has an anti-piracy business. “My new piracy thing is only a couple of months old, but I know where to get everything.” He says his company STORM or Strategic Tactical Reconnaissance Maritime, was inspired by a TV show called Shadow Warriors. “I used to have a website but I couldn’t afford to keep it up.” But he did find that a lot of people were interested and has had over 3000 business inquiries. “Out of those, 11 were potential candidates. Out of those, four actually came, and three have made multiple tours. I did have a couple of 16-year-olds pretend to be 18 years old.”
Jack also thinks there will be business from the US government. “DEA wants info, the US wants info, but they won’t leave the embassy. Even when they want to meet, they don’t want to go more than one subway stop from the embassy.” Although Jack is enthusiastic, it seems the US invests accordingly. “The DEA is eager to fund with Toughbooks, sat phones and BGANS. They have to check with higher ups. They might give me 2000 baht a month [about $65 USD].”
“They are worried about drugs, nukes, China and North Korea. There are a lot of Burmese who would sell that info. Manifests, large equipment on RoRo’s.” His stillborn maritime attempt seems to have attracted some interest. “I have a bunch of people coming from Afghanistan. Couple of British guys, mostly contractors who have money. All I have is contacts and experience. I don’t have any money.”
Jack sees a bigger geopolitical importance to the region. “China is setting up in Burma big time. Rich people in America want to disrupt shipping along the coast for the Chinese. We could set it up for $500,000.”
The ideas keep flowing as we chat inside the bamboo clinic. “I am thinking of doing anti-piracy along the coast. Charge fees for the ships that come in that steal the fish. The Burmese have no presence along the coast. I know I need two fast boats.” He finds humor in the idea. “We could charge them a fee for fishing in Karen waters.”
Jack’s newest idea seems the most far-fetched and most lethal. “I want to use an ultra light. Fly it out of a small strip… Ultra lights can carry 250 pounds…You can arm them. I put an M16 on an ultra light with a scope and night vision. You shoot from 6000 feet… the bullet goes straight down… We tested in out in the desert near Fresno. We laid out a bunch of soccer balls, something the size of a human head… Start at 16,000 feet and glide in. It takes about three shots during the day. At night it takes longer, six to seven shots with night vision.
“You can buy them for 16,000 bucks. It seats two side-by-side, or pilot and load.” Jack is full of ideas. “I can get Glocks for 45,000 baht ($1,500 USD). I can get M1s for 25,000 baht ($830) all day long. I can get all the ammo I want. But I am broke. I am about as broke as they come.” His clients call. Time to cross the river.
Late at night, Rob and I are sitting on a rough-hewn bamboo bench listening to the sounds of the jungle at night. The creek burbles, people inside their huts are singing and the usual group is watching a Mr. Bean DVD on the battery powered TV for the umpteenth time and laughing at the exact same spots every time its played. The stars burn through, and we stare up. Rob talks about death. “I had thyroid cancer. They took it out. Had a Cambodian kid in Seattle die in my arms after he was shot in a drive-by. Found a dead homeless guy that was stabbed. Those things seem to gravitate to me.” A satellite tracks across the sky as we sit in the cool of the dark. “My girlfriend shot herself. When I was 22. We broke up. She went out and bought a Remington 303. She called my friend, ‘Is Rob there?’ And then shot herself. I had to go pack and clean up her place. I found pieces of skull and brain in my clothes. I kept going in a downward spiral. Like a tuna before you gaffe it.” He doesn’t have a funny ending. He pauses. “Eighteen months I was working in a cubicle. Now I am here.” A shooting star interrupts him.
“Look at those people.” He nods to the Karen watching TV. “There is a soldier, sitting next to a baby. Look at the women. They are smiling”. He pauses again but there is no shooting star that burns and disappears. “I am happy here.“
The next morning we are on. Thai Boon has set up a meeting with the generals. We travel to the “commando training camp” before dawn, and the first thing we hear is the raucous sound of two distinctly Americans voices bellowing, “Fucking… fucker… Fucking …dipshit. Fucking… goddamn… fucking… asshole…”
As we hike up from the river there are two geriatric silver-haired men drinking their morning coffee discussing old times and acquaintances with a liberal dose of profanity. They are here to train General Bo Jo’s Special Forces. They are both Vietnam-era Special Forces vets, one with time in Germany and Cambodia and now training contractors in the US.
A few yards away a fire is cooking two pots and what looks like a very large vine. On closer inspection, it’s a freshly killed python. The Karen eagerly drag the 8-foot snake across the coals to cook their morning delicacy. While the two Americans continue their good spirited but foul-mouthed conversation, I talk to 48-year-old General Bo Jo, the commander of the 5th Brigade—the most active and largest of the KNLA army. The 5th Brigade has about 1,300 men under arms, and is up against about 3,000 Burmese troops.
General Bo Jo’s grandfather worked with the legendary “Grandfather Long Legs” and spent time in prison with him. He began as a Sergeant in 1982 and has been a General since 1997. Like many senior Karen, he has a link to America. His wife is in Indiana working on her PhD. He is not optimistic for the future. He sees the struggle lasting another five to 15 years. He personally visits each village that is burned, and he asks me if I have any idea for a better freedom for his people.
As the interview wraps up the General says to me, “Don’t forget about us.”
After the interview Bo Jo puts on his uniform for photos. He wants to just sit and talk with us. Behind us the python is being served up, two small dogs fight and the cook puts on a large pot of boiling water. Mama noodles, bamboo shoots, fried potatoes, sardines and rice. All washed down with Birdie premixed coffee. By now the two silver-haired Americans begin teaching their classes. Down by the river they have built a small model of a Burmese Army Base. With the aid of an interpreter one of them is teaching the Karen how to attack: “The snipers need to take out the towers, while the rest of the forces fires mortars” The other hobbles off into the jungle with the aid of a cane to start the class on self-defense. A British instructor is working on training the Karen in the use of a shortwave radio.
A lot of gear is donated to the Karen effort, and it gear ranges from erasable markers to motorcycle batteries to soldering and wiring kits. Communications equipment is their most important need. A quick inspection of the Karen Special Forces soldiers is not encouraging. Their weapons are battered Vietnam-era Colt AR-15s, some still stamped “Property of the U.S. Government.” Some carry bolt-action rifles and Garands that date back to Korea and World War II. They have rubberized jungle packs and most wear sandals or flip-flops. A few have jungle boots. Some commanders wear tactical leave-behinds by foreign advisors, like Casio watches, binoculars and the most popular gift: telescopic rifle scopes. Before we leave, General Bo Jo asks to have his picture taken with me and to get an autograph. “You are our advisor now”.
After almost a week of waiting, it’s time for our march into the heart of the conflict. We take a boat upriver for an hour. Hidden under a stifling black tarp is a doctor, a former electrician and now pastor of a church in Southern California, the wife of a former SF soldier, the wife of a volunteer, , another doctor, a former missionary pilot and head of partners, and a silent American who turns out to be a property tax accountant on vacation with the pastor. We are dumped off on the riverbank as the last light of day disappears. Inside the jungle, it is even darker. We switch on our headlamps for the long walk ahead.
It’s easy to both embellish and understate the amount of pain and effort it takes to hump a heavy pack up and down guerilla mountain jungle trails. The best way to describe is to say that one very physically fit and young man would attempt this walk and fail. The doctor along with us has also tried and failed this hike. The distance is only about 20 miles, but the terrain is chosen specifically to deter Burmese army troops. On painkillers and only ten feet at a time, we accomplished the hike. Large holes in the bush were reminders of where sure-footed pack mules slipped off the muddy trails and crashed down the side of the mountain.
On the tail end of the second day we hiked down from a mountain, sun baked, thirsty and in pain and ended up in Dawa. There to meet us was the Father of the White Monkey. We’ll call him Doug. Doug was a former Ranger, Special Forces Major and always a devout Christian. He immediately greeted our small group by praying and then loading up our packs for the hike deep in the forest. After a bamboo-raft river crossing, a steep hike up and down, we arrived in a narrow valley. Camp Taw Wah, one of a number of training camps used by the Free Burma Rangers to mentor and graduate five-man teams that spread out across Burma.
This camp is in a deep, green valley with a spectacular, boulder-strewn river at the bottom. There are a dozen huts—woven grass roofs, pole supports and made from peeled bamboo. During the day, purple and black butterflies flit in and out, cicadas chorus. The ground is river silt with the tops of giant boulders poking out and bamboo sprays. It’s the start of the dry season. At night the frogs call to each other like ducks, the stars explode and the cold air rushes down. Nights are chilly as the moon slides over the narrow valley with only the sound of people talking softly.
At 5:30 in the dark morning, the sounds of PT enliven the camp. Doug leads the exercises in singsong Karen. Before breakfast the recruits chant an English statement for freedom before digging in to massive bowls of rice.
The camp is small and the small bamboo huts holds about 100 young men and women. There are three Americans, two of them ex-military, one a computer expert. There is also Doug’s family of three young children and his wife. The two Americans, volunteer military trainers, are joined by their wives who were along for the hike. The gullawas eat at a headmaster’s table elevated above the recruits’ area. Anyone who has been to a military or boarding school would recognize the concept immediately.
Doug is up before dawn reading his bible or books and has run up the mountain and back before six o’clock. The Father of The White Monkey is a dynamo of energy and optimism: tapping out emails on his ToughBook, talking on his solar-powered sat phone system, meeting with recruits, writing update emails or making lists on the many white boards. He is a hyperactive perpetual-motion machine. But he often stops mid thought or sentence to ask people to help him pray. It’s hard at first to understand why a well-trained military commander would stop and seek guidance and support. The concept took me back to my days with al Qaeda and other jihadi groups. Like the Chechen rebels, also trained in the military, who simply said, “Our faith in God is simple. There is no one else to help us”
Doug has no one to help him other than the few medical and military volunteers who risk the steep trails and hard living, the young Karen, who put in 4 months of training, and his religion. Deep behind enemy lines—his only supply chain by foot or mule—he has managed to carve out a well-oiled training camp, high tech communications center and beacon of hope for the Karen. Doug is thin, small shouldered and wiry but his accomplishments are immense. The students beam under pressure and constantly say; “Rangers never give up.”
I ask Doug why he calls his operation “Free Burma Rangers.” Like many of Doug’s decisions, it is intuitive and simple. “I made up the name when I climbed Mt. McKinley, and I had to write down a name. Kind of like the Texas Rangers or the Army Rangers.” He started in 1997 with one local media team and now trains five- man teams from volunteers. They are trained in security, communications, media, medical skills and morale. But Doug makes the point that this is being done by the Karen, not him. Koala Bear, a small, hard-as-rock 37-year-old Karen commander, is in charge of training.
Doug has the unnerving habit of interrupting our interview with a prayer. “Robert, what kind of Christian are you? I need some prayer.” I don’t know what to say after seeing the godless wastelands of insurgency and terror in 36 wars. Without an answer, he prays for my success and the Karen. Then just as quickly pops back into interview mode. The Free Burma Rangers now have 15 different teams, and do two-month missions to document and help Karen that are attacked by the Burmese army. Volunteers spend four years inside FBR and then move on to military, support or political arms of the KNU. Currently he has 11 different ethnic groups at the camp, and even one Muslim. Doug estimates FBR burns through about $1 million a year, mostly donated from church groups. “We have 55 teams out there, but we are treading water. Help, hope and love is how they survive. We do our best to send out information, to help the people, stay with the people.” Looking to define it better, he then adds, “I cannot run away.”
Although Doug is a devout Christian, who grew up in Thailand and whose parents are Baptist missionaries, he insists that no one is trying to change anyone’s religion here—though there is a distinct sense of religious zeal and devotion in the camps by both instructors and students. “We have been here seven years, have four other training sites and eight teams operating from the Indian side. Since I was five years old, I wanted to be a soldier and then missionary.” His dad was a missionary when Thailand was still rural and undeveloped. Dave was sent to a boarding school at age seven. “That’s when I gave my life to Jesus. I got dengue. I was crying under my pillow. I was alone and sick I asked Jesus to help. And I felt this warm love come over me.” Growing up in Thailand shaped him. He used to hunt, fish, hike and ride horses while his missionary father dug wells and built schools. This beautiful mountain landscape with raw rivers and pristine hills is also his home. He owns 150 acres and wants it to be a national park. He bought it for $1,500 after the owner’s elephant trampled the rice crop when he was a way.
Doug’s history is both religious and military. He joined the Army, then wanted more of a challenge so he went to Ranger school. Because of his Thai language skills, he then became Special Forces. “In 1992 at my ten-year point I could have gone CAG (Delta Force) or Defense Attaché but got married. I met a lady and she left me. We were both immature, selfish people.” Doug’s life seems to be a constant battle between success and failure.
We talk about the conflict of religion and military life. He tells me a story. “Robert, when I was 27 years old and I was a Ranger, we were preparing to overthrow the dictator in Surinam. My job was to take out a group of Cubans at Paramaribo Airport. Bad dudes. To get to them we were going to have to run a mile and a half with full gear and then call in coordinates for an air strike. I was supposed to give them a minute to surrender before calling it in. But good old Ranger Lieutenant Eubanks was going to run in and just let them have it. The operation never happened but later my commander, General Mayer heard this and said, “You were going to give them one minute weren’t you.” Doug was surprised that Eubanks had no problem killing dozens of people without hesitation. He said, “You may be in the army but you serve a higher force. I thanked Mayer. That’s when I learned that I serve something higher.”
The higher force, despite the military structure, has kept FBR funded by humanitarians, church groups and individuals. One day, instead of the normal PT that keeps them lean, they are practicing singing songs, throwing Frisbees and making each other laugh—a task to cheer up demoralized and abused villagers. Their weapons are whatever the students can beg, borrow, buy or scrounge. I saw less than a dozen very old M1s and AR 15s in the camp.
The other odd part of Doug’s life is that his wife, his two young daughters and son live with him. “We want to be together as a family. The locals asked us to bring our family. It shows them that here it is safe. There are no locks on the door here. The Karen break a candy bar and break it into five pieces. We have two days warning if the Burmese are on the move.” He is proud that his son Peter did a 30-mile movement at age four. I ask him about the new attack helicopters. He says he doesn’t think it will be a problem and then says, “Yeah, we should probably think about digging bunkers.”
He said he was first mobilized to do something when he met the leader of the democratic party. “I met Aung Sang Syu Khi in the States in 1996. Even though she is a Buddhist, I gave her a bible and asked if I could pray for her. She said we need the prayers of people. I said I would be obedient until death. Just like the Lord says. Be obedient till death… So I am obedient until death.”
Doug has to balance life between being a mercenary, missionary and humanitarian. He makes it clear that no one here is making money, removing the mercenary stigma. He admits that there are plenty of foreigners behind enemy lines and the main sponsors do their best to coordinate. But he defends the need for military people in this war. “When the fighting starts, the missionaries all leave, the NGOs are next…but where are the Livingstone’s? We stay with the people under attack and will not leave them. We have no program of arming teams. We also prohibit offensive action. There is always room for people’s interpretation. It’s not a clear black and white.” Then he finishes by saying, “I love this God who speaks through the voice of God.”
“I don’t know what we are going to do next,” he says. “All I know is that I have 13 years of doing this. I have been in five close firefights… I like to fight, but God has never told us to do that. We have lost eight guys, half by sickness and half by combat.” The best perspective is the most banal, “Really the biggest danger is blisters, whacking your head or malaria.”
Doug and the FBR teams are the best single source of intelligence coming out of Burma. Thanks to his teams, the tactics of the Burmese Army are well documented and distributed via his website. “The SPDC mortars the village, chase them away, shoot and loot, then burn it and leave. The idea is to drive them into camps in Thailand or surrender. They kill the rest.” He has books of photos of murdered, raped and abused villagers. Once singular event that haunts him is a seven-year-old girl, raped, shot at point blank range and left on the trail for the Rangers to find her.
I ask Doug where God was on that day. He immediately asks. “Can I pray, Robert?” His eyes clench, he lowers his head and he prays out loud for the “strength and guidance to carry on”. He looks up at me “When you experience something like that, you want to kill them all, eat their bodies and then eat their shit and piss so there is no trace of them…. But the four of us [the FBR leaders] voted on it and said, no… we will be with the people and defend them.”
Doug wants me to understand we’re in an active war zone. “Burma is divided into 10% free fire or black zones, 20% brown or army controlled and 60% peaceful. We are in a black zone. We can recon the army within two hours. But you saw from those trails, that they don’t come here. The Burmese army doesn’t want to burn villages and murder villagers, but they are forced to. We intercept radio communications where a the major said if you want to be promoted you will burn the village if you don’t you will stay on the river.”
Part of fighting back is not only documenting the methodical human rights violations but also staying alive to do it. He views his position as a mouse between two elephants. “In 1997, the two governments of Myanmar and Thailand had meetings. The Burmese said these Special Forces guys were causing problems. Within an hour of the Burmese leader landing, the Thaïs arrested us. Thankfully, we were released. This Thai General said I fought for your release but God got you out. I believe in God. I don’t go for a hike and throw away my compass but God guides me. So we have a working relationship. They say don’t mention your name and never show your face in a publication and cover up all the white people who enter.” For some reason they don’t care about Christian publications. One group in the government supports his work because he keeps the Karen refugees inside Burma, the other group wants to shut him down and a third group doesn’t care either way. Today FBR is 250 people. I push him on what he really wants. He says “300 rifles?” He smiles. Doug realizes he must walk that line again. “We have zero secrets. No secret spook stuff, but if the CIA wanted to help us we would take it.
Later that day, one of the American military trainers is concerned that the story is about the “ethnics” and not “the white faces.” He was trained as a Marine Sniper and his wife is a midwife. “She was trained to bring people into this world and I was trained to take them out.” But I ask him why he is here. “There are only so many conflicts that are this right. We are only here to support them.”
At dinner, we talk again. Doug is still trying to get to the core of his motivation and his constant internal battle. “Injustice is someone who holds you down who is stronger. I am only 150 pounds, but how many times have I been unjust?”
Dave constantly asks me to focus on the Karen and not on the gullawa. But it is clear that the outside support is one of the reasons why the Karen have held out so long. Villagers, dirty, tired and smelling of smoke and urine, sit patiently for the FBR medics to take care of them. It is up the western doctors to operate on a small boy, draining the pus out of his knee. The two doctors set up a makeshift operating area across from my mat and cut in without anesthetic.
Doug’s opinion of the foreigners is that unless they stay, fight and actually are there throughout the combat operations with the Karen they trained, they are just here on vacation. He also thinks that the Rambo-like mentality of many of volunteers, like the Americans who were detonating large explosive charges right on the border simply makes it more difficult.
“The history of outside involvement probably began with Captain Hang, who was a veteran of the French-Indochina war. He was a legionnaire, Vietnamese and rose in France. He not only trained but he went and did the operations. Very tight. When I see some of Bo Jo’s men operating on the river, I can see Hang trained them.
“A couple of more Legionnaires came in the French marines. They did well. By the fall of Mannerplaw in 1995, the easy access was gone. There were very few foreigners in here after that. Lots of fighting, travel was dangerous, nobody knew who to talk to. Before July of 2003 they were just across the river at Mai Salit under the cliffs, but the Thais told them to move or they would have to arrest them. You could come in a wheelchair. Wouldn’t even get your feet wet.” He points to the sheer green walls around us. “Now you have to walk.”
After a couple of weeks come and go, the pain from the walk has vanished. I am losing weight, eager to run up hills. I bathe every day in a jungle stream, eat rice and deer meat, go to bed at 8 p.m. and get into the rhythms of the jungle. The young men and women of the FBR have become friends and invite me to take part in their activities. It is clear that for someone looking for a cause, this place is like Mecca.
Before we leave the students surprise Rob and I. They hoist us above their heads, cover us in ash and dirt and then throw us in the river. Then they carefully wash us off, smiling and laughing at this simple ritual of acceptance. I suppose it’s a baptism of sorts. There are long speeches from both sides, crudely printed diplomas and earnest thank-yous, and then it is off to the green vertical hell for two days of walking back to civilization. But this time, it’s enjoyable and I’m a little wistful.
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.